What is the Meaning of Jihad?

"Jihad" is a term often misunderstood and associated with violent radical militants. This Arabic word is frequently mistranslated as "holy war," although there is no such thing in Islam. Holy war is something undertaken to forcibly subject others to certain religious doctrines. As we have seen, this is expressly forbidden in Islam.

The Arabic word "jihad" actually means a struggle or striving, and applies to any great effort on the personal as well as the social level. It is striving to do good and remove injustice and evil from oneself and from society. This exertion of effort can be spiritual, social, economic or political. For example, one of the highest levels of jihad is to stand before a tyrant and speak a word of truth. Restraining the self from wrongdoing is also a form of jihad. It is a broad Islamic concept that includes opposing evil inclinations within the self, opposing injustice by peaceful means, the exertion of effort to improve the quality of life in society, as well as the striving by military forces on a battlefield in defense of the community or of peoples oppressed. Jihad is not synonymous with war, as that is only one possible aspect of the term, and it certainly does not include terrorism.

Indeed, the concept of jihad is one of life, and it is vast, not limited only to armed conflict. One finds in the Qur'an mention of "jihad by means of the Qur'an,"1meaning invitation to truth using the best arguments, presentation of evidence and clarification. And there is jihad of the soul, which means striving to purify the soul, to increase its faith, incline it toward good and keep it away from evil. 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.

It includes 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. Jihad endeavors to teach belief in the one supreme God and worship of Him, to spread good values, virtue and morality through wise and proper methods. Jihad means striving for social reform and the elimination of ignorance, superstition, poverty, disease and racial discrimination. Among its main objectives is securing rights for weaker members of society against the impositions of the powerful and influential.

Armed jihad is not an option for Muslim individuals or groups. It can only be declared by the Muslim head of state and religious leadership. Moreover, it must never be fought for worldly gain, conquest or revenge. Muslims may only engage in battle to protect peoples' lives, properties and freedom.

Islam and War

Although jihad is a wider concept than war, it is also clear that Islam acknowledges armed struggle when there is no other option for the treatment of such problems as oppression and aggression and the defense of legitimate freedoms and rights. Its purpose is not to convert people to the religion, nor is it to colonize or acquire land and wealth. When Islam permits 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 reason and logic.

War becomes jihad only when it is waged for the acceptance of God and according to the laws of God. Even self- defense will not be considered jihad if Muslims are striking back in revenge. While Islam encourages oppressed people to strive for liberation and orders Muslims to help those who are oppressed, under no circumstance does it allow indiscriminate killing and terrorizing, destruction of homes, animals and crops, or the torture of prisoners.

Jihad has conditions of restraint that distinguish it from any other kind of warfare. They can be summarized as follows:

  1. Muslims may not begin hostilities. They must strive for peace as much as possible.

  2. All treaties and agreements must be observed as long as the enemy continues to observe them.

  3. Muslims must fight only those who fight against them; non-combatants are not to be harmed.

  4. Weapons of mass destruction must never be used, and collective punishment is strictly prohibited.

  5. Hostilities should be ended as soon as the other party is inclined to peace.

Throughout their history Muslims have entered battles and armed conflicts under these terms. If the situation is different today, it is only because these Islamic principles are not being observed.

When all peaceful means such as dialogue, negotiations and agreements have failed and an Islamic government chooses the option of war, it must be confined to the divinely ordained system that is precise, just, teaches proper ethics in the situation of war, and provides opportunity for peace. The conditions that indicate the kind of warfare lawful to Muslims as a form of jihad show clearly that Islam does not condone aggression against anyone.

Finally...

Dear reader, we now have a few simple questions to ask you. Did you ever wonder...

  1. Why is a Jew practicing his religion called orthodox, a Christian practicing his called devout; but when a Muslim practices his religion he is labeled a fundamentalist?

  2. Why can a nun be covered from head to toe and be respected for devoting herself to God; but when a Muslim woman does that, she's considered fanatic or oppressed?

  3. Why, when a non-Muslim steals, rapes or murders, his religion is irrelevant; but when a Muslim is charged with a crime, it is Islam that goes on trial?

  4. Why is it that Prophet Muhammad has been singled out in Western media for abuse and criticism?

But then again, why, in spite of so many negative portrayals, is Islam the fastest growing religion in the world?

We would now like our readers to ask themselves what they think are the reasons for all the propaganda and misinformation being spread around. If Islam was just another false religion that made no sense, would so many people need to invent so many falsehoods about it?

Our answer is merely that the ultimate truth of Islam stands on unshakeable ground and that its basic fundamental belief in one supreme God is above reproach. Hence, because no one can criticize its doctrines directly, opponents can only resort to spreading misinformation about Islam so that people will be deterred from interest in it and lose the desire to find out more.

This religion comes from God, and it is protected by Him. If any other religion had been exposed to the wars, conspiracies and plots that Islam has been exposed to, it would have been dispensed with long ago or essentially altered as other religions have been. This faith, however, has remained unchanged for over 1400 years, while love of it constantly renews itself in the hearts of its followers, and adherence to it increases with their increase in education and knowledge - further evidence that it is truly God's religion.

Islam provides mankind with a reason to live and with an ethical code by which to live. It outlines the dimensions of universal relationships - with individuals, societies and all of creation. It protects the institution of the family, upholds principles of justice, self-sufficiency, personal and collective responsibility, and freedom of thought. Islam provides the foundations for a stable society, progress, security and world peace.

If more Muslims were to present Islam correctly and clearly, it would surely make many people reconsider and re­evaluate their own beliefs. It is quite likely that both scholars and lay people, upon finding a universal religion that teaches people to worship God and respect His prophets within a framework of pure monotheism, would at least feel the need to reassess the basis for their own beliefs and doctrines. And it is that to which all people are invited by the Qur'an.

Yes, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today, and it has the answer to problems facing the modern world. Do not judge the religion by what you see on television or by what some Muslims or so-called Muslim leaders are doing. Study it from its authentic sources and speak to sincere practicing Muslims. You will surely find a different picture than that projected by the media. You may even find that Islam is what you have been looking for all your life.

May God guide you to the truth!

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1)Refer to 25:52.

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