A great deal of misconception exists, particularly in the West, with regard to the meaning of the word jihad in Islam. In reality jihad is a duty upon all Muslims to commit themselves to a struggle on all fronts — moral, spiritual and political — to create a just and decent society. It is not – as is commonly understood – a ‘holy war’ against the non-believers. The phrase ‘holy war’ was coined by the West in its struggle against the Muslims in the time of the Crusades (a war instigated by the Church for ‘religious’ gain). There are other words in Arabic which are more appropriate to use in a war.And these words would surely have been applied had the idea of war been at the core of the concept described in the Qur’an by the word jihad. Examples of such words are harb (war) and ma’araka (battle). Below we quote Haji Ibrahim Golightly’s response to a question on jihad.
Jihad means to strive or make an effort, usually in an Islamic context, so that anything which requires an effort to be made is jihad and the person doing it is a mujahid. The media would have us believe that it is fighting and killing in the name of Allah. It is certainly in the name of Allah but, as usual, the media have corrupted the meaning so that they can apply its new meaning to ‘fundamentalist Muslims’, basically any Muslim who does not subscribe totally to the Western way of life. Making time in a busy schedule to study the Qur’an; going to a halalbutcher rather than the closest or most convenient one; discussing Islam with both Muslims and non-Muslims and helping them to understand it better; studying ayat (signs), both of Qur’an and in nature and science, in order to increase ‘ilm, or knowledge; setting other Muslims a good example and showing non-Muslims the true way of Muslims; are all examples of jihad in daily life. Jihad is the effort made, not just against internal and external evils, but also to live at peace with oneself and one’s community (Muslim and non-Muslim).
He concludes by saying: ‘simply explaining the true meaning of jihad to those who do not know, is jihad in itself.’11
In fact, the implication of the word jihad, like all other words, can only be judged in the context of the Qur’anic verses in which it is used. The following are some typical verses, with appropriate comments, to indicate what the Qur’an conveys by jihad. The material below, including most of the translations are based on Chapter 5 of Maulana Muhammad Ali’s book The Religion of Islam.12
(22:78) And strive hard (jahidu) for Allah with the endeavour which is right[…].
The jihad implies that one should exert oneself to one’s utmost ability (i.e moral, spiritual or political) for the cause of Allah; to establish Allah’s Deen, without resorting to war.
(29:6) And whoever strives hard (jahada), he strives (yujahidu) only for his own soul, that is for his own benefit, for Allah is altogether Independent of (His) creatures.
(29:69) And those who strive hard (jahadu) for Us, We will certainly guide them in Our ways, and Allah is surely with the doers of good.
The Arabic word jahadu is derived from jihad, and the addition of fi-na (for Us) indicates that jihad, in this case, is the spiritual striving to attain nearness to Allah, and the result of this jihad is stated to be Allah’s guidance for those striving in His ways.
(25:52) So do not follow the unbelievers, and strive hard (jahid) against them a mighty striving (jihad-un) with it.
The personal pronoun ‘it’ refers clearly to the Qur’an, as the context will show. It is a struggle (jihad) to win over the unbelievers, not with the sword but with the Qur’an.
(66:9) O Prophet! Strive (jahade) against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be stern with them[…]
Here the Prophet is asked to carry on a jihad against both unbelievers and hypocrites. The hypocrites were those who were outwardly Muslims and lived among Muslims, and were treated like Muslims in all respects. They came to the mosque and prayed with the Muslims. A war against them was unthinkable and none was ever undertaken. They sometimes fought along with the Muslims against the unbelievers. Therefore, the injunction to carry on a jihad against both the unbelievers and hypocrites could not mean the waging of war against them. It was a jihad in the same sense in which the word is used in the above verses, a jihad carried on by means of the Holy Qur’an as expressly stated in 25:52, a striving hard to win them over to Islam. Jihad in both 25:52 and 66:9 is used in the moral and political sense. It does not imply war.
(2:218) Lo! Those who believe, and those who emigrate (to escape the persecution) and strive hard (jahadu) in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah’s mercy. Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
(8:74) Those who believed and left their homes and strove hard (jahadu) for the cause of Allah, and those who took them in and helped them — these are the believers in truth. For them is pardon, and a bountiful provision.
(3:142) Or deemed ye that ye would enter Paradise while yet Allah knoweth not those of you who strive hard (jahadu), nor knoweth those (of you) who are steadfast?
In all these verses jihad is used in the general sense of striving hard, morally, spiritually, and in our day-to-day life. In all cases jihad implies a struggle in Allah’s ways to achieve an objective, without resorting to war.