What Is Jihad?

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

In recent years, the word jihad has become synonymous in many minds with a form of religious extremism that causes a great deal of fear and suspicion. It is commonly thought to mean "holy war," and especially to represent efforts of Islam extremist groups against others.  Since understanding is the best way to combat fear, let's look at the history and true meaning of the word jihad in the context of Islamic culture.

We shall see that the current modern definition of jihad is contrary to the linguistic meaning of the word, and also contrary to the beliefs of most Muslims. 

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 Muslims view this as a last resort, and it in no way is meant to mean "to spread Islam by the sword," as the stereotype now suggests. 

Checks and Balances

Islam's holy text, the Qur'an, 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 Qur'an 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"

-Qur'an 2:251

Just War

Islam never tolerates unprovoked aggression initiated by Muslims; in fact, Muslims are commanded in the Qur'an 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 when necessary to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution. The Qur'an 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 never a justified reason to declare war on them.

The Qur'an 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 . . ."

-Qur'an 22:40

Note that the verse specifically commands the protection of all houses of worship.

Finally, the Qur'an 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 legitimate historical precedent for waging a "holy war" to "spread the faith" and compel people to embrace Islam.

Such a conflict would constitute an unholy war entirely against Islamic principles as set forth in the Qur'an. 

The use of the term jihad by some extremist groups as a justification for wide-spread global aggression is, therefore, a corruption of genuine Islam principle and practice.