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What is Jihad?

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Question/Criticism: Jihad means holy war. It is a war that is ordered by the Qur'an for Muslims to fight against Christians, Jews and people of other religions.



Jihad is a term that is VERY much misunderstood in the West and also by MANY Muslims themselves. The first thing that comes to the mind of westerners is the picture of Muslim terrorists senselessly striking out against the West with blind hate in some IDEA of a holy war.  But in reality, there is no such concept in the religion of Al-Islam. 


Some western writers have even described Jihad as follows: "Islamists view the portion of the world that has not submitted to their rule as the Dar es Harb or the world of war. Western writers falsely believe, ‘(Muslims)’ are commanded by their faith to conduct Jihad, or war, against the non-Islamic world until they achieve Dar es Salaam, or a world of peace." As a result of this false idea, they draw the conclusion that Al-Islam is a religion set out for world conquest, and Jihad is the conduct of war waged by Muslims to achieve the conquest of the world.

Few have actually looked into what Jihad truly means for Muslims, nor the historical record of Jihad in Al-Islam and the actual Arabic meaning of the word Jihad.  It should be noted that Muslims apply two ASPECTS to the word Jihad. One Jihad is what is called the little Jihad and the other is called the big Jihad. The little Jihad is the reverse of what the western world will call little. The little Jihad according to Al-Islam includes fighting physical wars. It refers to the exterior battle waged against others to defend the Muslims and protect the teachings of Al-Islam. The BIG or greater Jihad is "self government" or the struggle that every human being must fight against the forces of evil within themselves. The struggle against greed, selfishness, arrogance, hatred, anger, envy, falsehood and other human weaknesses that each human being must battle is referred to as the big Jihad in Al-Islam. This big Jihad is considered to be vastly more important than the little Jihad of fighting against others in a war.

This seems odd that the individual struggle that one makes against the "weaknesses and demons" one may find within oneself is considered vastly more important than the external wars fought against enemies attacking a nation. The natural question to ask is why? Why is the struggle against the weaknesses of myself considered to be a greater struggle than fighting an external enemy who might be attacking my whole nation? Before answering this question I want to give a short background of where the reference to little Jihad and big Jihad came from. It has to do with the history of Al-Islam involving one of the battles fought by the Prophet of Al-Islam (saaw) against the pagans of Makkah:


When the Islamic community had just established itself in the city of Medina north of present-day Makkah, the Makkans were still not Muslims. They tried to attack the people of Medina and destroy the early Islamic community. The Battle of Badr was fought, in which the Muslims, although a much smaller number, were victorious and were able to defend themselves. So, the Muslims were very happy. When they were coming back to the city, the Prophet said to those around him – "You have now come back from the smaller Jihad." And they were all surprised. What could be greater than having gained this victory which would protect the early Islamic community? They asked, "What is the greater Jihad?" He said, "To fight against one's inner passions, against the evil tendencies within oneself." So, human beings should always be in an inner Jihad to better themselves, to overcome the infirmities and imperfections of our inner soul.

So the Prophet (saaw) himself gave the true definitions for the smaller and greater Jihad. By defining Jihad this way he identified exactly where the real problem lies.  Wars, struggles, battles, discord, etc., are not things that come into being from a vacuum. They are not self created entities that have nothing to do with the hearts of men. No, the seeds of wars, conflicts and struggle are born in the hearts, in the minds and in the thinking of human beings. It may be one person or several persons but that seed is then planted in many other human beings and as a result wars and struggle break out. Any doctor will tell you that in order to really cure a disease it is better to treat the cause of the disease, the root, not just the symptoms.

By identifying the big Jihad as a struggle against one’s inner passions, against the evil tendencies within oneself, the causes of war and struggle are addressed. If all human beings can overcome those evil, inner tendencies, then the cause for war will be vanquished. If we seriously look at all wars that were ever fought throughout history, we will find that it was some human weakness or evil tendencies that were the causes of war. Whether it was for greed, selfish domination of another people, theft of resources, religious arrogance, etc., they can all be identified as weaknesses or deficiencies in the hearts and thinking of people. Once these evil tendencies and deficiencies are rooted out of the hearts and minds of people, wars will not exist. The early followers of the Prophet (saaw) were very strong in demonstrating the true meaning of Jihad. One example of this involves Imam Ali (as) the 4th Khalif of Al-Islam.

In one of the battles against the pagans, Ali was in a sword fight against an enemy. He had overcome his enemy and was about to deal the final blow to kill him. It was at that point that the enemy combatant spit in Ali’s face. Ali then stopped. He put away his weapon and instead of killing his enemy, he walked away. Finding Ali’s behavior odd, the puzzled enemy combatant asked, "Why did you suddenly stop when you had a chance to kill me?" Ali replied, "I couldn’t because you made me angry. I use my sword for Allah and not for myself? I was afraid that I would be killing you out of anger rather than seeking the justice of Allah."

So in this example, Ali demonstrated what it MEANT to put down the little Jihad and pick up the big Jihad. He fought the big Jihad within himself, which was trying to motivate him to act out of anger. In so doing instead of proceeding with killing another human being, he stopped. This is a beautiful example that all human beings can learn from.

Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and the author of numerous books on Al-Islam further defines Jihad as follows:

For [a] long, long time, many centuries, Jihad was translated as "holy war." This is false. The word "Jihad" in Arabic comes from the root "to use effort." It means to use one's effort in the path of G-d. Over the centuries, Jihad took on two meanings, in the same way that in English the word "crusade" has two meanings: One is the historical act of the pope ordering the Crusade in Europe in the Middle Ages. And one is the popular, everyday word, like the crusade of President Lyndon Johnson against poverty, or something like that, which we use in the English language regularly.

Jihad also has [acquired] two meanings. One is general -- whatever you exert yourself for in a good way. For example, in some countries you have Jihad for helping the poor, Jihad for reconstructing slums -- this kind of thing; it would be exactly like the word "crusade" that in the Western mind originally was a holy war, but it now means any kind of effort. But the original meaning, the more profound meaning, is the one that is now being misconstrued and mistranslated and discussed all the time as "holy war," almost [like] going to fight against others. This is not true at all.

One [type of Jihad] is to defend -- not to bring offense, but to defend one's religion and home and property when one is attacked. That's called the external Jihad, the little Jihad. The greater Jihad is a Jihad within oneself against all the negative tendencies that are really the source of all the external frictions in society -- greed, evil, envy, all of the unnecessary rivalries, the kind of fighting that we have to carry out within our soul to create peace within ourselves. And that is called the greater Jihad.

So, far from being something associated with an idea of Muslim world conquest and a rallying cry for war against the infidels, Jihad in a smaller sense, is a most profound Islamic concept rallying Muslims to defend themselves against aggression.  But in its deeper meaning as the big Jihad, if practiced by all of humanity, it offers the world a sure way to end all wars.



#1 About the first quotation...Soren 2012-12-17 19:33

Currently I'm trying to teach myself about islam and the term 'jihad' has come up. I can see that Muhammed once defined and big and the small jihad. My question is, where does he do that in the quran? I'd like to read it myself.

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