What is “Jihad“?

While Islam is generally misunderstood in the West, perhaps no other Islamic term evokes such strong reactions as “jihad”. The Arabic word “Jihad”, which is most always mistranslated as “holy war”, simply means “to struggle” or “to exert one’s utmost effort”. It is incorrect to imagine that jihad is synonymous only with fighting or war, for this is but one particular aspect of the term.[1] Jihad is a struggle to do good and to remove injustice, oppression and evil from oneself and from society. This struggle is spiritual, social, economic and political.

Indeed, the concept of jihad is one of life, and it is vast, not limited only to armed conflict. For example, one finds in the Qur’an mention of “jihad by means of the Qur’an”,[2] meaning invitation to the truth, evidence, clarification and presenting the best argument. There is also “jihad of the soul”, which means striving to purify the soul, to increase its faith and incline it toward good while keeping it from evil and from unlawful desires and temptations. Then there is “jihad through wealth”, which means spending it in various beneficial ways, including charities and welfare projects. And there is “jihad through the self”, which comprises all good works done by a believer, such as propagation, teaching and finally, lawful armed struggle against aggression and oppression.

In the name of jihad, Islam calls for the protection of societies from oppression, foreign domination and dictatorships that usurp rights and freedom, that abolish just and moral rule, that prevent people from hearing the truth or following it, and that practice religious persecution. In the name of jihad, it endeavors to teach belief in Allah, the One supreme, and worship of Him and to spread good values, virtue and morality through wise and proper methods.  has commanded:

(Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best.)  [16:125]

In the name of jihad, Islam calls for social reform and the elimination of ignorance, superstition, poverty, disease and racial discrimination. Among its main goals is the protection of rights for weaker members of society against the impositions of the powerful and influential.

Islam prohibits injustice, even toward those who oppose the religion. Allah, the Exalted, says in the Qur’an:

(And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.)  [5:8]

And told the believers regarding those who prevented their entry to the Sacred Mosque in Makkah:

(And do not let the hatred of a people for having obstructed you from the Sacred Mosque lead you to transgress.)  [5:2]

Enmity toward any people or nation should not provoke Muslims to commit aggression against them, oppress them or disregard their rights.

One of the highest levels of jihad is to stand up to a tyrant and speak a word of truth. Restraining the self from wrongdoing is also a great form of jihad. Another form of jihad is to take up arms in defense of Islam or a Muslim country when Islam is attacked, but this has to be declared by the religious leadership or by a Muslim head of state.

Although Jihad is a wider concept than war, it is also clear that Islam acknowledges war when it becomes the last option for the treatment of such problems as oppression and aggression and for the defense of certain freedoms and rights. When Islam acknowledges military engagement, it is as an integral part of a complete system of values inherent in the religion, behind which any equitable person can perceive the reason and logic.

War is permissible in Islam only when all peaceful means such as dialogue, negotiations and treaties fail. War is a last resort and should be avoided as much as possible. The purpose of Jihad is not to convert people by force, or to colonize people or to acquire land or wealth or for self-glory. Its purpose is basically the defense of life, property, land, honor and freedom for oneself as well as defense of others from injustice and oppression.

Is Islam a militant religion?

In Islam, the use of force is allowed only in special situations, particularly when the Muslim community is threatened by hostile forces. This is indeed natural and logical for any nation. Then again, the use of force in a campaign of jihad is determined by the leader of the Muslim community in a very ordered and ethical way.

Islam considers all life forms as sacred, but particularly emphasizes the sanctity of human life.  says in the Qur’an:

(And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right.) [6:151]

 says:

(Whoever kills a soul unless for a soul[3] or for corruption [done] in the land[4] – it is as if he had slain all mankind.  And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.)  [5:32]

Such is the value of a single human life, that equates the taking of even one human life unjustly with killing all of humanity.

It is important to understand that in Islam, war is only permitted in specific and dire circumstances. It is despised and only permitted as a last resort when all other attempts at peace have been made. It keeps warfare at a level of mercy and respect for the enemy such as none other has been able to reach. The Prophet (SA), sometimes had to fight for the mere survival of his mission, but once security was ensured, he immediately reverted to peace and diplomacy.

Even in a state of war, Islam enjoins that armies deal with the enemy justly in the battlefield. Islam has drawn a clear line of distinction between the combatants and the non-combatants of an enemy country. The Prophet (SA) told his armies,

“Do not kill any old person, any child or any woman.”[5]

And He said:

“Do not kill the monks in monasteries.”[6]

Upon seeing the corpse of a woman on a battlefield, Prophet Muhammad (SA) angrily asked his companions why she had been killed, and he strongly condemned the atrocious act. For those enemies active in combat and those taken as prisoners of war, the list of rights is lengthy. There should be no torture; no killing of the wounded or defenseless, no mutilation of enemy bodies and return of corpses to the enemy must be honored. In light of the aforementioned, it becomes crystal clear that Islam does not permit aggression, violence, injustice, or oppression. At the same time, it calls for morality, justice, tolerance, and peace.

Far from being a militant dogma, Islam is a way of life that transcends race and ethnicity. The Qur’an repeatedly reminds us of our common origin:

(O mankind, indeed We created you from male and a female, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Verily the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.)  [49:13]

It is the universality of its teachings that makes Islam the fastest growing religion in the world. In a world full of conflicts and deep schisms between human beings, a world that is currently plagued with terrorism, perpetrated by individuals and by states, Islam is a beacon of light that offers hope for the future.

Are Muslims terrorists?

It is very unfortunate that nowadays, Islam has become synonymous with “terrorism”. Far from promoting terrorism, Islam is a religion of peace whose fundamentals teach its followers to maintain and promote peace and justice throughout the world. Islam does not condone “terrorism” as defined and understood nowadays: plane hijackings, hostage taking and the torturing and killing of innocents in order to achieve political or even religious goals. This is not how Islam teaches Muslims to solve their problems, achieve their goals, or to spread their religion.

The question that should be posed instead is: Do the teachings of Islam encourage terrorism? Certainly not – Islam totally prohibits all terrorist acts. It should be remembered that all religions have misguided followers. To be evenhanded and just, one must consider the teachings of the religion, as they are the yardstick by which the actions of its adherents can be assessed as being right or wrong.

It is completely unfair to judge Islam by the wrongdoings of some misguided or ignorant Muslims, or by the deteriorating condition of Muslims and the blatant corruption that pervades the Muslim world. In fact, what Islam preaches is one thing and what so many Muslims nowadays practice is something completely different. The only way we can do justice to Islam is to find out about its noble teachings, which are clearly set out in the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. Former pop singer Cat Stevens, now known as Yousef Islam, observed: “It is wrong to judge Islam in the light of the behavior of some deviant Muslims who are always shown on the media. It is like judging a car to be bad if the driver is drunk and he crashes it into a wall.”

Islam is a religion of peace, which is acquired by submitting one’s will to the will of the supreme Creator, . Islam promotes peace but at the same time, it exhorts its followers to fight oppression. The fight against oppression may, at times, require the use of force, and sometimes force has to be used to maintain peace.

Certainly, Islamic law allows war under particular circumstances. Any religion or civilization that does not, would never survive. But Islam never condones attacks against innocent people, women or children. Islam also clearly forbids “taking the law into one’s own hands”, which means that individual Muslims cannot go around deciding who they want to kill or punish. Trial and punishment must only be carried out by a lawful authority and a qualified judge.

How can Islam be called a “religion of peace” when it was “spread by the sword”?

It is another common misconception among some non-Muslims that Islam would not have the millions of adherents it has all over the world, had it not been spread by the use of force.

The following proofs will make it clear, that far from being forcefully “spread by the sword”, it was the inherent force of truth, reason and logic that was responsible for the rapid spread of Islam.

* Islam has always given respect and freedom of religion to all faiths. Freedom of religion is ordained in the Qur’an itself:

(There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong.)  [2:256]

The noted historian De Lacy O’Leary wrote:[7] “History makes it clear however, that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through the world and forcing Islam at the point of the sword upon conquered races is one of the most fantastically absurd myths that historians have ever repeated.”

Another famous historian, Thomas Carlyle, in his book Heroes and Hero worship, refers to this misconception about the spread of Islam: “The sword indeed, but where will you get your sword? Every new opinion, at its starting is precisely in a minority of one; in one man’s head alone. There it dwells as yet. One man alone of the whole world believes it, there is one man against all men. That he takes a sword and tries to propagate with that will do little for him. You must get your sword! On the whole, a thing will propagate itself as it can.”

If Islam was indeed spread by the sword, it was the sword of intellect and convincing arguments that was used. It is only this type of sword that conquers the hearts and minds of people. The Qur’an says in this connection:

(Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best.)  [16:125]

The facts speak for themselves:

* Indonesia is the country that has the largest number of Muslims in the world, and the majority of people in Malaysia are Muslims. But, no Muslim army ever entered Indonesia or Malaysia. It is an established historical fact that Indonesia entered Islam not due to war, but because of its moral message. Despite the disappearance of Islamic government from many regions once ruled by it, their original inhabitants have remained Muslims. Moreover, they carried the message of truth, inviting others to it as well, and in so doing endured harm, affliction and oppression. The same can be said for those in the regions of Syria and Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, North Africa, Asia, the Balkans and in Spain. This shows that the effect of Islam on the population was one of moral conviction, in contrast to occupation by western colonialists, finally compelled to leave lands whose peoples held only memories of affliction, sorrow, subjugation and oppression.

* Muslims ruled Spain (Andalusia) for about 800 years. During this period, the Christians and Jews enjoyed freedom to practice their respective religions, and this is a documented historical fact.

* Christian and Jewish minorities have survived in the Muslim lands of the Middle East for centuries. Countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan all have significant Christian and Jewish populations.

* Muslims ruled India for about a thousand years, and therefore had the power to force each and every non-Muslim resident of India to convert to Islam, but they did not, and thus more than 80% of the Indian population remains non-Muslim.

* Similarly, Islam spread rapidly on the East Coast of Africa. And likewise no Muslim army was ever dispatched to the East Coast of Africa.

* An article in Reader’s Digest ‘Almanac’, yearbook 1986, gives the statistics of the increase of the percentage of the major religions of the world in half a century from 1934 to 1984. This article also appeared in The Plain Truth magazine. At the top was Islam, which increased by 235%, while Christianity had increased by 47%.  During this fifty-year period, there was no “Islamic conquest” yet Islam spread at such an extraordinary rate.

* Today, the fastest growing religion in North America, Europe, and Africa is Islam. The Muslims in most of these lands constitute a minority. The only sword they have in their possession is the sword of truth. It is this sword that is converting thousands to Islam.

* Islamic law protects the privileged status of minorities, and that is why non-Muslim places of worship have flourished all over the Islamic world. Islamic law also allows non-Muslim minorities to set up their own courts, which implement family laws drawn up by the minorities themselves. The life and property of all citizens in an Islamic state are considered sacred whether they are Muslims or not.

It is clear, therefore, that Islam was not spread by the sword. The often-alleged “sword of Islam” did not convert all the non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries. In India, where Muslims ruled for 800 years, they are still a minority. In the U.S.A. and Canada Islam is the fastest growing religion and has over seven million followers.

In his book The World’s Religions, Huston Smith discusses how the Prophet Muhammad (SA) granted freedom of religion to the Jews and Christians under Muslim rule:

The Prophet had a document drawn up in which he stipulated that Jews and Christians “shall be protected from all insults and harm; they shall have an equal right with our own people to our assistance and good offices,” and further, “they shall practice their religion as freely as the Muslims.”[8]

Smith points out that Muslims regard that document as the first charter of freedom of conscience in human history and the authoritative model for those of every subsequent Muslim state.

The Qur’an says that Muslims should kill the non-believers wherever they find them. Does this mean that Islam promotes violence, bloodshed and brutality?

There are a few verses from the Qur’an that are quite often misquoted or quoted out of context to perpetuate the myth that Islam promotes violence and exhorts its followers to kill those outside the fold of Islam. The words (Kill the polytheists wherever you find them) are often quoted to portray that Islam promotes violence, bloodshed and brutality.

In order to understand the context, it is necessary to read from the beginning of the chapter. It discloses that there was a peace treaty between the Muslims and the pagans of Makkah. The pagans violated this treaty, so a period of four months was given them to make amends; otherwise war would be declared against them. The complete verse actually says:

(But when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and seize them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer and give Zakah, then open the way for them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.)  [9:5]

This verse is a command to the Muslims who had entered into an agreement with the pagans, who soon violated the agreement, to fight and kill those who betrayed them wherever they found them. It would seem that any open-minded person would consider the historical context of this verse and agree that it cannot be used as “evidence” that Islam promotes violence, brutality and bloodshed, or that it exhorts its followers to kill anyone outside the fold of Islam.

The very next verse gives the answer to the allegation that Islam promotes violence, brutality and bloodshed.[9]  It says:

(If any one of the pagans asks you for asylum, then grant it to him so that he may hear the words of Allah [i.e., the Qur’an]. Then escort him to where he is safe. That is because they are a people who do not know.)  [9:6]

The Qur’an not only stipulates that a pagan seeking asylum during the battle should be granted refuge, but also that he be escorted to safety. In the present age, what military commander would direct his soldiers not just to spare an enemy during battle, but to escort him to a place of safety? Yet, that is exactly what Almighty instructs in the Qur’an.


[1] The word for war in the Qur’an is “harb” or “qitaal”.

[2] Refer to 25:52

[3]i.e., in legal retribution for murder.

[4]i.e., that requiring the death penalty.

[5] Narrated by Abu Dawud.

[6] Narrated by Ahmad.

[7] In his book Islam at the Crossroads, p.8.

[8] Quoted in The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, Harper Collins, 1991, p. 256

[9] Arun Shourie, one of the most persistent critics of Islam in India, quotes the same verse (9:5) in his book, The World of Fatwas, p. 572. But after quoting it, he skips the next verse and jumps to the one after it. This is a clear indication that some of the opponents of Islam are biased and prejudiced in their criticism.

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