‘Jihad?’ – An enquiry

October 3, 2006 at 12:55 am 2 comments

The term and concept jihad is one of the most misunderstood and ill-used words in modernity.  This essay seeks to challenge the prevalent conception of jihad as representing ‘holy war’ or offensive violent acts which are supported on a religious basis.  In order to purport this, a consideration of jihad, both in lesser and greater terms must be carried out.  However, due to the western pre-occupation with the lesser jihad, it is necessary to focus upon this facet of the concept of jihad; attempting to consider the subject without the Eurocentricism that dominates western arguments[1].  The examination of the concept of jihad, lesser and greater, involves an attempt to understand their historical context, and consider the influence of the said context. Furthermore, I will also examine the different representations of jihad through Islamic history, from classical notions to the present.  Whilst this is not a definitive guide, it aims to provide a clearer understanding of this important Islamic concept. 

Lesser or external jihad, as one Muslim author refers to it[2], is complex in both its meaning and in the history of its application.  In contrast to the common Western perception, ‘jihad’ does not translate into ‘holy war’, nor does the term itself necessarily connotate violence.  Jihad is most commonly translated into ‘utmost effort or struggle in the path of God’.  Lesser jihad can be applied to many aspects of the ‘external’ world, and is not restricted in its application to physical violence or armed combat.  Indeed, it has been widely noted that the writers of the Qur’an chose the term, ‘jihad’ in favour of the array of Arabic terms that denote physical violence, such as ‘harb’ (war), sira’s (killing) and qutal (killing).  This choice is indicative of the broader meaning of jihad[3]. 

Despite this, the concept of jihad is historically, and conceptually connected with physical violence. 

The doctrine of jihad was determined in the latter half of the second century, according to the Muslim calendar[4].  The concept of jihad is clearly derived from pre-Arabic society; in which tribal war was considered lawful, and if fought defensively, was considered additionally justified[5].  Whilst the nature of pre-Islamic
Arabia can be considered of high influence in the construction of jihad, even more imperative was the social climate in which Islam experienced its formative years.  Indeed, as Armstrong notes, Muhammad and the early Muslim community came to
Medina in 622 C.E as religious refugees, and would remain under threat of extermination for the next five years, “Muhammad and the first Muslims were fighting for their lives and they had also undertaken a project in which violence was inevitable.”[6]  Thus, jihad developed out of the pre-exiting attitudes present within Arabic society, and more importantly in direct reaction to the social climate in which Islam developed.

Clearly, a doctrine concerning armed combat within Islam was inevitable, however, it must be emphasised that jihad allows violence only on the basis of defence,

Q: 190-193: And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.  And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from wherever they expelled you; persecution is more grievous than slaying.  But- surely fight them not by the Holy Mosque until they should fight you there; then, if they fight you, slay them – such is the recompense of the unbelievers – but if they give over, surely God is All-forgiving, All-Compassionate. 

The above passage, which calls for physical aggression, clearly outlines the defensive nature of jihad[7]. 

Jihad, when considered in relation to physical combat, was later given extensive legal consideration, which constricted its application further. 


A prominent jurist, Averroes (b. 1126 C.E), for example, expounded upon the doctrine of jihad in his text, Al-Bidāya.  Here Averroes explains that an enemy may only be attacked if safe-conduct has not been granted.  If this is the case, however, only the able-bodied and arm bearing men of the community may be attacked[8].  Evidently, the application of jihad to physical combat was restricted by both its defensive status and further moral ideals.  Therefore, offensive action as taken by Muslim states throughout history may not be considered as acts of jihad[9]. 

Whilst classical conceptions of the lesser jihad are concerned primarily with jihad in relation to physical combat, jihad has come to be concerned with wider social issues[10], beginning in the latter half of the 19th century[11].  Lesser jihad, in the modern context, is primarily concerned with the betterment of Muslim society.  This includes providing educational resources on and within Islam, and general socio-economic issues present within the Muslim world.  For example, feminist Muslims, are currently taking part in ‘gender jihad’, “the struggle in the name of God toward socially recognised and institutionalised gender parity.[12] 

Many Muslim theologians consider the economic advancement of Islam also a matter of jihad[13].  An example of this can be found in 1975, when President Bourgaiba of
Tunisia called for an economic jihad,

Tunisia, which is an Islamic country suffers from a certain degree of decline and backwardness, that bring disgrace on us in the eyes of the world…Escaping this backwardness is jihad obligation… [14]

Clearly, the lesser jihad, despite its early concentration upon physical defence, is and has been applied to a wide range of external concerns, reflecting the flexible nature its name. 

A consideration of jihad necessarily concentrates upon the lesser jihad; due to its wider impact upon global history, and indeed the emphasis it receives in Islamic legal and religious texts. This necessity results in a less than adequate understanding of the greater jihad.  The origin of the concept of the greater jihad is widely debated. The oft-quoted hadith of Muhammad, who spoke after returning from battle, “We return from the little jihad to the greater jihad” points to the greater jihad being formulated in early Islamic history.  Whilst some scholars consider the greater jihad to be a product of the late 19th century, Peters convincingly argues that the Golden Age of Islam resulted in the internalisation of the lesser jihad[15] creating the greater jihad.  Despite its historical ambiguity, the greater jihad has become of great religious importance within the last two centuries.  Indeed, for some contemporary Muslims, the greater jihad has become the sole and only appropriate interpretation of jihad[16]. 

Whilst the lesser jihad is the struggle against external forces, the greater jihad is concerned with the inner struggle between good and evil within the individual.  However, the greater jihad is intrinsically connected to the lesser jihad. 

It acts as a necessary precondition for acts of defensive jihad[17], whilst acting as a basis from which improved social conditions may be achieved.  Nasr states that Islam is based upon the notion of equilibrium,

The flight to peace by the soul is necessitated by the establishment of an equilibrium, both outward and inward which is necessary for vertical ascent.[18]

Essentially, the greater jihad, a largely ascetic concept; it is concerned with overcoming the baser elements of human life: renouncing attachment to material objects, greed and lust, in an attempt to reach the divine within the human existence.  For example, performing the zakāt, one of the five pillars of Islam, this requires that one give to charity up to ten percent of personal income, involves the struggle against inner greed, which helps to establish economic equilibrium in the external world, whilst establishing frugality within the person.  Greater jihad pertains to the struggle within the person to establish a connection with divinity within this life. 

Evidently, the concept of jihad is indeed far removed from the western perception of this doctrine as holy war.  Lesser jihad neither advocates offensive physical violence, nor is it wholly concerned with armed, physical combat.  The struggle in the path of God, whether it be to protect one’s land, as was the case in the Crusades, or establish gender equality, mobilises the Muslim community to advance itself.  Lesser and greater jihad are co-existent concepts: neither can exist without the fulfilment, or attempt to carry out the other.   Jihad is an essential part of Islam, as a religion and as a society; it seeks spiritual and secular excellence within the individual and community as a whole. 

[1] See especially Pipes, D. 2002, “Jihad and the Professors” Commentary vol. 114 no. 4 pp. 17-21; Ellens, J. 2004, “Jihad in the Qur’an, Then and Now” ed. J. Ellens The Destructive Power of Religion, Violence in Judaism, Christianity and Islam Westport, U.S.A. 

[2] Nasr, S. 1987, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, K.P.I,
London. p. 29

[3] Noorami, A. 2002, Islam and Jihad, Prejudice versus Reality, Zed Books,
London. p. 49;

Lawerence, B. 1998, Shattering the Myth, Islam Beyond Violence, Princeton University Press,
New Jersey. p. 168; Heck, P. 2004, “Jihad Revisited” Journal of Religious Ethics v. 32 no. 1 pp. 95-128. p. 97. 

[4] Peters, R. 1996, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, Marcus Wiener,
New Jersey. p. 2.  The Muslim calendar, begins with the fleeing of Muhammad and the first Muslims from Mecca to Yathrib (later
Medina) which is why it is called Hijra.  This has been dated to July 16th 622 C.E.

[5] Peters. Jihad in Classical p. 1. 

[6] Armstrong, K. 1995, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Victor Gollancz,
New York. p. 168

[7] The notion of a religious doctrine that is concerned with secular well-being may seem as inappropriate to the Western, secularised mind.  However, it must be stressed that Islamic countries, and within Islam itself, experiences no such secularism: religion remains a central concern of the society, and is inseparable from secular law and values. 

[8] Averroes.  (1996) “Al-Bidāya” in Peters, R. 1996, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, pp. 27-42 Marcus Wiener,
New Jersey.  See pp. 32-35.  Averroes states that if a community is attacked, the following members of the said community may not be slain: women, children, the ill, the elderly, peasants, hermits and the insane. 

[9] Further to this, there exists scant evidence for the conception that the wars of early Muslim history were wars of conversion.  These wars were neither jihad driven, but were wars of conquest and political hegemony.   See Lippman, T. 1995,  Understanding Islam, An Introduction to the Muslim World, 2nd ed. Muridian,
New York.  pp. 115.  It should also be noted that the calling of expansionist Islam, which I have not considered here, can be largely considered defunct.  The classical notion that the Imām is obliged to raid enemy territory annually, was neither applicable to the Golden Age of Islam (c.750-1500) nor is their any evidence to the contrary.  Further to this, there also exists considerable restrictions concerning who may call the Muslim community to both expansionist and defensive jihad (aside from individual defensive jihad).  Within Shi’ite Islam, expansionist jihad can only be waged under the leadership of the rightful Imām.  As the occultation of the last Imām was performed in 873 C.E, it is considered unlawful for jihad to be called.  Furthermore, Noorani notes that traditionally, jihad, for the community, whether it be expansionist or defensive, must be declared by the clergy in fatwas. 

[10] This is not to say that jihad as defensive action against offensive action is still not important to the modern Muslim world. 

[11] Religious doctrines, as outlined above, are intrinsically connected to the society in which they are formed, and reside within.  Therefore, the classical concern with warfare is connected to the pre-Islamic Arabic society that was characterised by tribal war-fare.  As this does not dominate the Muslim world, it was inevitable that the doctrine of jihad would change in relation its social conditions.  

[12] Abugideiri, H.  2001, “The Renewed Woman of American Islam: Shifting Lenses Toward ‘Gender Jihad’” The Muslim World, vol. 91 no. 1/2 pp. 1-18.   p. 2

[13] Hopfe, L. 2005, Religions of the World, 9th ed,
Prentice Hall, New Jersey. p. 349

[14] Peters. Jihad in Classical p. 117

[15] Peters. Jihad in Classical  p. 187

[16] Miller, R. 2000, Muslim Friends: Their Faith and Feeling, An Introduction to Muslim Orient, Longham. P. 253

[17] Waddy, C. 1990, The Muslim Mind 3rd ed.
New Amsterdam, Lanbam. P. 103

[18] Nasr, Traditional Islam p. 28


Entry filed under: greater jihad, Islam, Jihad, lesser jihad, Uncategorized.

An essay on the Reformation

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Antibush  |  February 16, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Bush and the Republicans were not protecting us on 9-11, and we aren’t a lot safer now. We may be more afraid due to george bush, but are we safer? Being fearful does not necessarily make one safer. Fear can cause people to hide and cower. What do you think? What is he doing to us, and what is he doing to the world?
    What happened to us, people? When did we become such lemmings?
    The more people that the government puts in jails, the safer we are told to think we are. The real terrorists are wherever they are, but they aren’t living in a country with bars on the windows. We are.

  • 2. learn quran online  |  October 29, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    What is jihad

    First, we would like to start with stating that Islam does not call for violence; rather it abhors all forms of violence and terrorism, whether against Muslims or non-Muslims. Islam, moreover, calls for peace, cooperation, and maintaining justice, and provides for the happiness and welfare of humanity as a whole. This fact is declared in the Qur’an when Allah says: (Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and liberality to kith and kin, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and injustice and rebellion: He instructs you, that ye may receive admonition.) (An-Nahl 16: 90)

    Jihad is one of the words that have been misused due to misunderstanding its true meaning. The word “Jihad” is derived from the Arabic word “Jahd” which means fatigue or the word “Juhd” which means effort. A Mujahid is he who strives in the Cause of Allah and exerts efforts which makes him feel fatigued. The word “Jihad” means exerting effort to achieve a desired thing or prevent an undesired one. In other words, it is an effort that aims at bringing about benefit or preventing harm.

    Jihad can be observed through any means and in any field whether material or moral. Among the types of Jihad are struggling against one’s desires, the accursed Satan, poverty, illiteracy, disease, and fighting all evil forces in the world.

    There are many religious texts that refer to these types of Jihad. Among the forms of Jihad is defending life, property or honor. Those who die while engaging in Jihad are considered to be martyrs, as confirmed by Hadith. Jihad is also done to avert aggression on home countries and on all that is held sacred, or in order to face those who try to hinder the march of the call of truth.

    In Islamic Shari`ah, Jihad in the Cause of Allah means fighting in order to make the Word of Allah most high, and the means for doing so is taking up arms in addition to preparation, financing and planning strategies. A large number of people are supposed to take part in Jihad including farmers, craftsmen, traders, doctors, engineers, workers, security men, preachers, writers and all those who directly or indirectly participate in the battle.

    This type of Jihad was a major concern of Muslims in the beginning of the formation of the Islamic community, and a lot of verses of the Glorious Qur’an and the Hadith advocated and encouraged it. Almighty Allah says: (March forth, whether you are light (being healthy, young and wealthy) or heavy (being ill, old and poor) and strive with your wealth and your lives in the Cause of Allah.) (At-Tawbah 9: 41) Jihad is considered an individual duty (Fard `Ein), on all Muslims who are capable and fit to fight, in the event of being invaded by the enemy, and is considered a collective duty (Fard Kifayah) in the event of not being invaded. However, if the Imam (leader) calls to Jihad, people must respond to his call. This is evident from Allah’s Saying, (O you who believe! What is the matter with you, that when you are asked to march forth in the Cause of Allah (i.e. Jihad) you cling heavily on the earth?) (At-Tawbah 9: 38), and the Hadith narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim, “When you are called to Jihad, then go forth.”

    learn quran online, learn quran tajweed


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Recent Posts

October 2006
« Sep   Nov »

%d bloggers like this: