The Meanings of Jihad

Posted in Islam, Politics at 12:01 pm by Haider

I once introduced myself in an online forum as a Muslim, and got the response: “What is jihad?” My answer to that question is reproduced below, with some modifications to include what has been mentioned by another post, and omitting the user name of the person asking the question.

Hello all,

I appreciate your interest in the subject, but you raised the issue in the thread that I introduced myself in, and I hope people don’t associate the negative connotations of jihad with me 😀

The term jihad has been misinterpreted by many Muslim sects, who will be more than happy to present their own definitions of the term. There are many Muslims who would agree with the definition [that jihad is “a holy war, spreading the teachings of Mohammed. In the name of Allah.” mentioned by another forum user], but I don’t 🙂

Jihad in it’s basic, linguistic meaning (i.e. not as part of Islamic terminology) means to struggle, or to exert effort in doing something (anything). In Islamic terminology, it means to exert effort in doing righteous acts, which can range from the smallest of good deeds to the greatest of sacrifices. To control your temper is a “jihad” against your temper. To tame your lusts is a “jihad” against your lusts. To oppose an unjust government is a “jihad” against injustice, etc.

There is a hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him and his family) where he greeted an army returning from battle by saying: “Greetings to those who have just performed the minor jihad (i.e. military conflict) and have yet to perform the major jihad.” When asked what the major jihad was, the Prophet replied that it was to struggle against one’s self (i.e. the inclinations to do wrong on an individual basis).

That is, to struggle in upholding moral conduct is the greatest form of jihad.

There is even a hadith that states: “The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.”

The primary reason why jihad has a bad name stems from a pile of misinterpretations of verses from the Holy Koran. There are some political events (e.g. colonialism) that have motivated these misinterpretations, but they remain an incorrect definition of jihad as an Islamic term.

Many Muslim groups consider jihad only in its military sense, and think that it is the responsibility of Muslims to spread the teachings of Islam, and through force, if necessary. Therefore, they consider any non-Muslim to be in need of converting, and interpret the Koranic verse “kaffir” (lit. disbeliever, or one who covers up the truth) to refer to all non-Muslims. And since the Holy Koran has numerous verses exhorting Muslims to fight the kuffar (plural of kaffir), they think that Islam demands that they fight all non-Muslims.

They also disregard the Islamic rules of military engagement, and think that anything is permissible during war. This is why you find Muslims committing terrorist acts against civilians, or endorse such actions. Mind you, not all terrorist acts are committed to convert non-Muslims to Islam. In fact, hardly any acts of Muslim violence today are committed with that intention. They are mostly done in retaliation to the hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Little do the terrorists know that their acts are, in fact, fuelling this hostility, and are giving non-Muslims valid justification to oppose Islam (or Islam according to the terrorist’s interpretation).

From the Holy Koran, we find that the term kuffar doesn’t actually mean all those who do not believe in Islam. It actually narrows this group down to those who show hostility towards Islam. There is a verse which makes this distinction, and says that Muslims are only permitted to fight those who prevent Muslims from practicing their religion, or persecute them and drive them out of their homes. Another verse says that violence (i.e. military conflict) is only permitted against those who have oppressed the Muslims. According to Islam, war itself has rules Muslims must abide by. Some of these rules are that civilians, women and children are not to be harmed (and especially not to be targeted!). Therefore, the false expressions of “jihad” today are in opposition to Islamic teachings.

Some people disagree with Islam for permitting military engagement in the first place. I would say that violence is sometimes necessary, primarily because your opponents may believe in it, and use it as the first form of engagement.

As far as forced conversion goes, I can’t say that Islam promotes such a thing. There is a complicated issue involved (which John Locke addressed in his “A Letter Concerning Toleration“), but I don’t wish to get into that now, especially since this post is too long already. Suffice us to say that there are a number of verses that promote dialogue, discussions based on wisdom and respect for other people’s freedom to make their own choices, but not necessarily approving of those choices. Also, to invoke genuine conviction in people cannot be done through force, and there is a Koranic verse to this effect (“There is no compulsion in religion”).

I hope this has answered your question, and shown you some of the complexities involved in defining the term: jihad.


  1. Bashar said,

    April 17, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Well nice explained bro. Thanks. I agree with you, although the post is a bit long to go through all of it 🙂

  2. Haider said,

    April 17, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks Bashar,

    As for the length of the post: It’s an illness. I can’t write short posts. I’ll try to visit my doctor again, and see what he can do 😛

    On a more serious note, the subject itself is very important and extremely misunderstood, so it deserved an elaborate explanation. But that could explain why I didn’t hear from the person who asked the question.


    Try to get used to the length of the posts… I have some fat posts on the way 😀

  3. mohammad alkazemi said,

    April 25, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Well thats that. Another salute to you sayed. I agree that the post was rather long but it would have been real hard to tackle all the misinterpretations avoiding it.

    A note on why the guy who asked the question was never heard from. I think he just wanted the simple “terrorists definition of the term jihad is wrong (or right)” and alls well. Sometimes people just want to prove their point or ideas by asking those around them a certain question hoping that they would agree with them. If so they spread the word on how they made the most gigantic and important discovery of the millennium and how that will make a leap in mankind’s way of thought and effect they way we think and if not then this world is doomed and its better of being blown to smithereens.

  4. Haider said,

    April 25, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    I honestly don’t know why the person who asked the question didn’t reply. In fact, I’m not even sure if he read my response! There are 101 ways to interpret his intentions and how he could have understood my response.

    But I do agree that he may have only wanted reassurance. And if he *does* think that he’s made the discovery of the millenium, I hope he directed all his family and friends to my post 😀

  5. Seth said,

    March 18, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Wonderful clarification. Although your definition does still justify the violence in Palestine (“Muslims are only permitted to fight those who prevent Muslims from practicing their religion, or persecute them and drive them out of their homes”), which in my opinion is the most useless, it certainly knocks me off the list of “infidel” and for that I am grateful.

  6. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Dear infidel, I mean Seth 😛

    In this article I dealt with the principle of jihad, and not the ethics of war. I would say that the Palestinians have a right to their self-defense, but attacking Israeli civilians is a question of war ethics, which needs to be addressed separately, and it has been covered by Islamic teachings.

  7. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I would absolutely agree that Palestinians have a RIGHT to defend themselves and their homes. I was questioning the effectiveness of the way they have gone about doing so–violence. As I tried to explain to Dr. Branden (in several comments he wouldn’t post) the violence is often a result of US/Israeli/PLO propaganda, and those organizations are basically working in concert.

    I don’t know. It sounds naive coming from a guy who has never stepped foot in Palestine (hoping that will change this summer), but I just wish ordinary Israeli’s and Palestinians would rise above this nonsense. There has got to be a better way, you know?

  8. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 5:20 pm

    Would you give me permission to print off this post and distribute it to some members of my mother’s church, as well as a few family members? I would like to distribute it under the title “The True Meanings of Jihad: a Clarifying View” and will of course list the author’s name however you wish to have it done.

    I believe that spreading the Truth in all areas of life is going to become a necessity in the future more so than ever, and this is one area that is especially in need of it.

  9. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I would have to write a post about what I think the solution is.

    As for distributing my article, please be my guest 🙂

    But use “The Meanings of Jihad” as the title, and “A Clarifying View” as the subtitle (technically, most of the meanings aren’t “true,” so that shouldn’t be part of the title).

    Don’t write my name, but it would be great if you add the website address, so those interested can also visit the site.

    And thanks for helping me convey my thoughts 🙂

  10. Ziad El-Hady said,

    April 9, 2012 at 4:32 am

    Thanks for this Haider. I very much hope that the person you addressed benefited from your explanation. I wish everyone was aware of this. It is short, clear, and attractive treatments like this which are in needed to clear the mist which clouds and distorts the perceptions of both Muslims and non-Muslims regarding Islam. Please keep up the good work. Just never stop.

  11. Haider said,

    April 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    Thank YOU for the moral support! 😀

  12. Tarz Muttaqi said,

    August 20, 2012 at 5:15 am

    I agree with you that kuffar refers to those who fight against Islam. But could you provide verse(s) which explicitly state that. I cannot, it is just how I feel.

  13. Tarz Muttaqi said,

    August 20, 2012 at 5:16 am

    “kuffar doesn’t actually mean all those who do not believe in Islam.”

  14. Tarz Muttaqi said,

    August 20, 2012 at 5:22 am

    I don’t mean anger anybody, just need clarification

  15. Haider said,

    August 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Dear Tarz,

    Thank you for passing by and asking for clarification.

    I’ve written a post which selects several verses relevant to properly defining what “kuffar” means. It’s An Open Letter to the Ayn Rand Institute.

    I hope that article helps.

    Also, it’s important to note that there are many different methods to the interpretation of the Koran, and understanding Islam, in general. I lean towards the approach that values human experience and putting verses in the context of our knowledge and observations.

    It is inaccurate (and dangerous) to assume that everyone who is non-Muslim should be viewed as an enemy. Our experience tells us that this creates unnecessary friction and hostility, rather than promote peace, tolerance and understanding.

    So the interpretation of kuffar as simply being “non-Muslims” would have negative consequences in our lives, and we must seek out an interpretation that is closer to reality and human well-being.

    I’m happy to discuss this further if my response needs any clarification. 🙂

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