What Is Jihad?

A Kurdish soldier defends the city of Kirkuk against an ISIS advance, July 2014. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The word Jihad stems from the Arabic root word J-H-D, which means "strive." Other words derived from this root include "effort," "labor," and "fatigue." Essentially Jihad is an effort to practice religion in the face of oppression and persecution. The effort may come in fighting the evil in your own heart, or in standing up to a dictator. Military effort is included as an option, but as a last resort and not "to spread Islam by the sword" as the stereotype would have one believe.

Checks and Balances

Islam's holy text, the Quran, describes Jihad as a system of checks and balances, as a way that Allah set up to "check one people by means of another." When one person or group transgresses their limits and violates the rights of others, Muslims have the right and the duty to "check" them and bring them back into line. There are several verses of the Quran that describe jihad in this manner. One example:

"And did not Allah check one set of people by means of another,
the earth would indeed be full of mischief;
but Allah is full of Bounty to all the worlds"

-Quran 2:251

Just War

Islam never tolerates unprovoked aggression from its own side; Muslims are commanded in the Quran not to begin hostilities, embark on any act of aggression, violate the rights of others, or harm the innocent. Even hurting or destroying animals or trees is forbidden. War is waged only to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution, because the Quran says that "persecution is worse than slaughter" and "let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression" (Quran 2:190-193).

Therefore, if non-Muslims are peaceful or indifferent to Islam, there is no justified reason to declare war on them.

The Quran describes those people who are permitted to fight:

"They are those who have been expelled from their homes
in defiance of right, for no cause except that they say,
'Our Lord is Allah.'
Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another,
there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches,
synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure..."

-Quran 22:40

Note that the verse specifically commands the protection of all houses of worship. Finally, the Quran also says, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). Forcing someone at the point of a sword to choose death or Islam is an idea that is foreign to Islam in spirit and in historical practice. There is absolutely no question of waging a "holy war" to "spread the faith" and compel people to embrace Islam; that would be an unholy war and the people's forced conversions would not be sincere.