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The concept of Jihad ("struggle") in Isalm

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"The best jihad [struggle] is (by) the one who strives against his own self for Allah, The Mighty and Majestic," Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). 1


bullet "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors." Qur'an, Chapter 2, verse 190.

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Meanings of "Jihad:"

"Jihad" and "Mujahid" (one who carries out a jihad) are two religious words that have been given multiple meanings:

bullet Many accounts in the media define "jihad" as a synonym for "holy war," -- a vicious, violent clash between followers of different religions, each of whom believes that God is on their side and that the other side is of Satan. This usage often appears on Western TV, radio, and other media during news about the Middle East, where it is used to describe a call for Muslims to fight against non-Muslims in the defense of Islam. Some Muslims have begun to adopt this meaning of "jihad" as a result of Western influence.

bullet Others use the term as a synonym for a struggle of any type. This reflects the origin of the word from the Arabic verb "jahada" which means to struggle or fight.

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The conventional interpretation of "Jihad":

According to Beliefnet, 2 Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid, imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, NY, defines three levels of jihad -- personal, verbal and physical. Considering each in turn:

bullet Personal Jihad: This is the most important form. This type of jihad, called the Jihadun-Nafs, is the intimate struggle to purify one's soul of evil influences -- both subtle and overt. It is the struggle to cleanse one's spirit of sin. In a brochure, the Institute of Islamic Information & Education describes several different contexts in which The Qur'an (the Islamic Holy Book) and the Hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammad) use the word "jihad" to refer to personal struggles:
bullet Putting "Allah ahead of our loved ones, our wealth, our worldly ambitions and our own lives."

bullet Resisting pressure of parents, peers and society; strive against "the rejecters of faith..." (Quran 25:52)

bullet "...strive and struggle to live as true Muslims..."

bullet "Striving for righteous deeds."

bullet Spreading the message of Islam. "The (true) believers are only those who believe in Allah and his messenger and afterward doubt not, but strive with their wealth and their selves for the cause of Allah. Such are the truthful." (Quran, 49:15)


Verbal Jihad: To strive for justice through words and non-violent actions. Muhammad encouraged Muslims to demand justice in the name of Allah. When asked: "'What kind of jihad is better?' Muhammad replied, 'A word of truth in front of an oppressive ruler!'" 3 According to the Institute of Islamic Information and Education:

"The life of the Prophet Muhammad was full of striving to gain the freedom to inform and convey the message of Islam. During his stay in Makkah [Mecca] he used non-violent methods and after the establishment of his government in Madinah [Medina], by the permission of Allah, he used armed struggle against his enemies whenever he found it inevitable." 1

bullet Physical Jihad: This relates to the use of physical force in defense of Muslims against oppression and transgression by the enemies of Allah, Islam and Muslims. Allah commands that Muslims lead peaceful lives and not transgress against anyone. If they are persecuted and oppressed, the Qur'an recommends that they migrate to a more peaceful and tolerant land: "Lo! Those who believe, and those who emigrate (to escape persecution) and strive (Jahadu) in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah's mercy..." (Quran, 2:218). If relocation is not possible, then Allah also requires Muslims to defend themselves against oppression by "fighting against those who fight against us." 2 The Qur'an states: "To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to defend themselves], because they are wronged - and verily, Allah is Most Powerful to give them victory." (22:39)  The defensive nature of physical jihad (or "jihad with the hand") is frequently lost among many, Muslims, Christians, secularists and others.

In her book "Muhammed," author Karen Armstrong writes:

"Fighting and warfare might sometimes be necessary, but it was only a minor part of the whole jihad or struggle. A well-known tradition (hadith) has Muhammad say on returning from a battle:

' We return from the little jihad to the greater jihad, the more difficult and crucial effort to conquer the forces of evil in oneself and and in one's own society in all the details of daily life'." 4

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Other interpretations of "Jihad":

Both the Judeo-Christian Holy Bible and the Muslim Holy Qur'an are large religious books, containing a great range of material dealing with religion, spirituality, justice, laws, love, etc. And they also contain references to violence, hate, murder, war, and even genocide.

bullet It would be quite possible to assemble passages from the Bible -- particularly the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) which describe genocide, rape, execution of non-virgin brides, murder of homosexuals, torture of prisoners, the rape of female prisoners of war, murder of a family because of the act of the father, the regulation and condoning of human slavery, and many other acts, cultural traditions, and laws which are profoundly immoral by today's religious and secular standards. If all one read of the Bible was a collection of such passages, one might conclude that the Bible is an evil document that promotes violence, unethical behavior. One might even conclude that it should be banned as hate literature.

bullet Similarly, it is possible to scan the Bible for passages relating to humans' love of God; love of humans by God; striving for justice; supporting widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned; love and concern for fellow humans; spirituality; and may other acts, cultural traditions, and laws which promote a loving, moral and ethical life. If all one read of the Bible was a collection of such passages, one might conclude that the Bible is a precious document indeed -- one worthy of emulating.

Which group of passages represent the real Bible? They both do! For centuries, Christians have searched for guidance on social conflicts like the abolition of human slavery, equal rights and opportunities for women, equal rights and protections for gays and lesbians, etc.

  • Some search for specific passages in the Bible dealing with these issues. A few concluded that slavery is an acceptable institution, that women should be oppressed and denied rights, and that gays (and perhaps lesbians as well) should be executed.

  • Others search for passages dealing with general themes, such as love, justice, and caring for ones fellow humans, and concluded the opposite.

  • Still others have used other techniques to assess the Bible's messages.

Which represents the "true" message of the Bible? They both do. And this is the reason why there are over 1,000 Christian groups in North America, all basing their beliefs and practices on the Bible, and yet teaching conflicting many beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.

The Qur'an is similar.

bullet A small percentage of Muslims who are from the extreme, radical and violent wing of Islamic Fundamentalism, and who are "...passionate, [deeply] religious and anti-Western..." 5 might dwell on passages or verses dealing with conflict, war, and resistance to oppression. Many conclude that the Qur'an expects them to engage in acts of terrorism, assassinations, suicide bombings, armed aggression against persons of other religions, oppression of women, executing innocent persons, etc.

bullet Those Muslim Fundamentalists who are not extreme, violent and radical, and those Muslims from mainline or liberal wings of the religion might concentrate on passages and themes of spirituality, justice, personal struggle, peace, freedom, etc.

They are consulting the same book, with a different emphasis, and achieve very different results.

We see the same split among Christians as they study Islam and the Qur'an.

bullet Some emphasize the earlier passages in the Qur'an which emphasize cooperation with the Jews and Christians -- the "People of the Book." They tend to interpret "Jihad" in terms of personal struggle towards purity.

bullet Others emphasize later passages of the Qur'an which were received during a time of conflict. They tend to interpret "Jihad" as holy war.

They come to opposite conclusions about whether Islam is a religion of peace or war.

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References used:

  1. M. Amir Ali, "Jihad explained; Brochure # 18," by the Institute of Islamic Information and Education at:
  2. "Save a Life, Save All Humanity--Take a Life, Kill All Humanity: What the Islamic scriptures really say about jihad and violence," Beliefnet, at:
  3. Sunan Al-Nasa'i , No. 4209
  4. Karen Armstrong, "Muhammed: A biography of the Prophet," Harper SanFrancisco, (1993). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. Craig Branch, "Act of War - Jihad," Apologetics Resource Center, at: 

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Site navigation: Home page > World religions > Islam > here

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Copyright © 2003 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2017-JAN-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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