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The Meaning of Jihad and its Implications in the World Today
Oct 1, 2006

The first revelation Muhammad ever received from God was “Read!” (Ali 1672). That was a fitting command for the final prophet of Islam to receive, commanding him to take an action. Taking action would be important for a religion that would soon be largely centered on doing deeds to emphasize faith in and submission to God. The actions that Muslims carry out in the course of their lives are quite far-ranging, but all actions are performed with God in mind. From the pilgrimage to Mecca to praying five times daily, Muslims carry out these religiously prescribed actions with strict devotion to God, never forgetting that submission to Him is the pinnacle of their faith and the essence of their actions.

One action in particular which has drawn much attention to the Muslim faith is jihad. The original meaning of jihad and the way it is still practiced today by the vast majority of Muslims is admirable, emphasizing perseverance towards a just, ever-lasting and rewarding goal-spiritual enlightenment (Gulen 208-227). However, jihad has recently been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misused by many non-Muslims and by a few Muslim extremists. This has resulted in many great mistakes, made both by the extremists and non-Muslims alike. The extremists have taken jihad and manipulated its meaning to suit their own beliefs and dogmas. The end result of all this has been and will continue to be heavy criticism and scrutiny of Muslims for performing an action that in actuality is very peaceful and responsible in its meaning. The true meaning of jihad is to struggle, to persevere and the meaning of the word does not include implicit or explicit approval of the radical acts of terrorism that have been committed by extremists; such people have simply misinterpreted its meaning.

To strive or struggle is the most suitable translation of the word jihad (Gulen 208-227). Jihad is carried out (or at least is prescribed to be carried out) by Muslims both collectively and individually. There are two parts of jihad: the lesser and the greater. The greater jihad is the inner struggle that an individual Muslim goes through in order to fight against superstition, wrong belief, carnal desire, and evil inclinations while striving to obtain intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. The lesser jihad is encouraging others to strive for and reach the same goal of enlightenment. Both aspects are carried out in the name of God and both aspects are interdependent on each other, since one cannot work without the other.

If Muslims want to be successful in the greater jihad they must make their focus in life striving for the sake of God. This includes all aspects of their lives, from sleeping to coming home from work at the end of the day. Every thought and every action Muslims take up must be directed towards God so that they can overcome their primitive carnal impulses. The goal of this, as mentioned before, is to obtain spiritual and intellectual enlightenment (Gulen 208-227). The caliph Umar exemplified his jihad through some of his actions. An example is a story related about this caliph in which he was giving a sermon and interrupted his own sermon, saying: “O Umar, you were a shepherd taking care of your father’s sheep!” Later, he was asked why he had said this, and he replied: “I remembered that I was the caliph, and was afraid of feeling proud.” Another story which exemplifies his jihad is when Umar was asked why he was carrying a sack on his back, to which he replied “I felt some pride, and wanted to get rid of it” (Gulen 18-31). Through these two examples we can see how Muslims in the past strove to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The lesser jihad a Muslim will strive for includes all outward actions towards others that are done for the cause of God. In other words, this means conveying God’s message to others through all aspects of a Muslim’s daily life. Given this idea, the lesser jihad will be practiced while going to war with others, but let us not forget that it will also be practiced in other more prosaic actions, such as shaking hands with someone. If the outwardly action will help one person or many people and it is carried out in the name of God then it is considered to be jihad. Forceful jihad is resorted to and permitted only when a person or many people seek to maintain a society or group that has been built on corruption, self-interest, oppression, and the degradation of the rights of others. This means that forceful jihad is only permitted when a society or group seeks to contain or even deflate the basic principles of Islam and in essence, Islam itself (Gulen 208-227). This point is clearly illustrated in the history of the persecution that the first converts to Islam faced while living in Mecca. Moustapha Akkad outlines this point successfully in his film, The Message: Muslims who were living in Mecca were facing extreme persecution from the pagans. It was upon God’s command that Muhammad, who was with his some of his followers in Medina, led his followers into battle against the persecuting Meccans. The Muslims in Medina took arms against the Meccans only because numerous Muslims in Mecca were facing severe persecution for their beliefs and practices. Thus jihad was necessary in order to save those who were victims of persecution. In his commentary on the revelation associated with this event, Abdullah Ali states how jihad was used justifiably,

Even from the human point of view, the cause of God is the cause of justice, the cause of the oppressed. In the great persecution, before Mecca was won again, what sorrows, threats, tortures, and oppressions were suffered by those whose faith was unshaken? Muhammad’s life and that of his adherents was threatened: they were mocked, assaulted, insulted, and beaten; those within the power of the enemy were put into chains and cast into prison ... they could not even buy the food they wanted or perform their religious duties. (208)

Thus, there was need and justification for Muhammad and his followers to fight the persecuting Meccans. It is easy to see from this example that forceful jihad is used only as a method of last resort and it is only a small aspect of the lesser jihad. Hence, lesser jihad incorporates all aspects of Muslims’ outwardly actions, which unless otherwise directed by God, will be peaceful, since they will strive to share the message of God with others.

Lesser and greater jihad are interdependent of each other; Muslims must first be struggling and striving within their self before they can strive outwardly in the name of God. Fethullah Gulen explains this idea exceptionally well by saying, “the deeper [the believers’] belief in and submission to God, the deeper their concern for all creatures” (208-227). Gulen’s quote reflects the idea of individual inwardly action (deep belief in God), being interdependent of outwardly action (deep concern for all creatures). Thus he emphasizes the point that the lesser and greater jihad are dependent on each other.

It is important for Muslims to constantly be striving for God; if Muslims abandon this goal, they will become without an aim and this will be the cause of their own failure in the quest for intellectual and spiritual enlightenment (Gulen 208-227).

To further emphasize devotion to jihad I will examine some passages from the Qur’an. The first is found in chapter 9, verses 38 to 39. This passage focuses solely on the individual Muslim, his/her jihad and the implications of the jihad. The verse stresses the actions of the individual both inwardly and outwardly,

O you who believe! What is the matter with you, that, when you are asked to go forth in the Cause of God, you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter. Unless you go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; But Him you would not harm in the least. For God has power over all things. (449-450)

In this passage, God challenges the individual to go forth in God’s cause and to abandon clinging to worldly ideals. Focusing on the hereafter is an action that leads to perseverance and devotion for Muslims. In challenging the individual to go forth, God is commanding them to strive within themselves to win the inner struggle. That struggle is acting justly in the name of God in day to day life (the greater jihad). In giving the command to go forth, God also challenges the individual to go out into the world and spread the message of God to everyone; this is the second part of jihad. Nowhere in this passage is harming, fighting, or killing others in the name of God spoken of. The message here is that through peaceful, inner struggle the individual will not be punished, but will rather be unharmed and able to live in the hereafter.

The next section of the Qur’an to be looked at comes from chapter 8, verses 72 to 74. These lines focus on the lesser jihad of a group of Muslims rather than just one individual Muslim. It emphasizes the promotion of Islam by a group of Muslims to others through jihad (fighting for God and also through hospitality to others),

Those who believed, And adopted exile, And fought for the Faith, With their prosperity and their persons, in the cause of God, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid-these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but come into exile; You owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile, but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom you have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) God sees all that you do. The unbelievers are protectors, one of another: Unless you do this, (protect each other), there would be tumult and oppression on earth, and great mischief. Those who believe, and adopt exile, and fight for the Faith, in the cause of God, as well as those who give (them) asylum and aid-these are (all) in very truth Believers: For them is the forgiveness of sins and provision most generous. (433-434)

The line which reads “if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them” is God’s command to Muslims to promote Islam to others only if they ask for aid. This can be seen as the lesser jihad and though it is a very daunting task for any one Muslim, it is still a very tranquil, peaceful, and patient act as God says that religious aid should be provided only if they (friends and protectors) seek it. The gentleness of this passage is further extended when God says if the unbelievers and the Muslims do no protect each other then there will be tumult and oppression in the world. The exact opposite of violence and radical acts of terrorism is emphasized here (the people who it is implied to be protected here are Jews and Christians). So it is obvious that this passage shows that the lesser jihad Muslims should practice has peaceful aspects and has very little to do with violence.

The Qur’an does however contain passages that speak of fighting, going into battle, and taking prisoners. But as we will see, these actions are not associated in any way with the mass murders that Islamic extremists commit, claiming (obviously incorrectly) that such actions are performed in the name of God. Verses 74 to 75 of Chapter 4 read as follows:

Let those fight in the cause of God who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fights in the cause of God-whether he is slain or gets victory-soon shall we give him a reward of great (value). And why should you not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?-Men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect; and raise for us from You one who will help!” (207-208)

Emphasis in this passage falls upon fighting in the cause of God; fighting for the oppressed and the maltreated. However the reader must be aware of the context of the passage before drawing conclusions about what is being commanded. First of all, this revelation came to the Prophet when he and some of his followers were in Medina. It was around this time that the Muslims still living in Mecca were facing severe persecution from the pagans. Muslims in Medina had wanted to retaliate and fight back, but Muhammad only allowed for fighting back after God had commanded him to do so. Therefore, this passage is likely to be one of the revelations the Prophet received from God directing him and the other Muslims to fight the persecutors of their religion. It is important to note that only after the Muslims in Mecca came under direct attack did God command the Muslims in Medina to fight the persecutors. In this passage God does not give permission for random mass murders, but rather only to fight the oppressors. As Abdullah Ali says in his commentary of this passage, “... the cause of God is the cause of justice, the cause of the oppressed” (434). The idea of defending Islam by means of fighting is a part of jihad, but it is vital to understand that such fighting is only necessary after Islam and the followers of Islam have come under direct attack from oppressors. And even in that fighting, as Ali mentions, there should be justice, and justification for fighting. The justification is that Islam is coming under attack. Given these ideas about jihad, it becomes clear that Islam does not promote radical acts of terrorism committed by extremists today. The extremists are wrong in claiming that their killing of innocent people is for the cause of God.

After taking into account all these misinterpretations, acts of terrorism, and acts of striving for justice in the name of God (as individuals and as groups), where do we go from here? Robert Jewet and John Lawrence claim that today it is inappropriate to focus on a crusade against Islamic terrorists attacking the West. Rather, they say it is far more appropriate for the West, while seeking forms of international law enforcement, to examine their own religious traditions and through research find resources that transform zeal and jihad into dimensions that match the political values of the West (165). While I agree with the first part of this solution, I strongly disagree with the second part. It is true that when dealing with jihad and the way it is used by extremists, we should not persecute and scrutinize Islam. However, when dealing with this issue, we must not retreat back to Christianity, afraid to take a leap ahead. Christian doctrine is not the key to the solution, contrary to what Jewet and Lawrence suggest. The solution does not lie within books of scripture; why look away from a problem and into a book when instead we can literally face the problem head on? The solution rests on the shoulders of each and every person who has a brain and a heart and who knows how to effectively use both. We must use our brains to realize that this issue will never completely go away but that we can minimize it. We must also use our brains in a way that allows us to learn and understand Islam and its key doctrines, beliefs, and practices, because if we willingly adhere to ignorance then we do not deserve to be described in a way that is different from how Bin Laden has described the West. Bernard Lewis cites a letter from Bin Laden in his book, The Crisis of Islam, published in November 2002. Bin Laden says in this letter “[we want you] to stop your oppression, lies, immorality, and debauchery” (157). He claims America is “without principles or manners” (158). We must use our hearts to allow us the patience and tranquility to understand the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of Islam, because if we cannot learn to accept Islam then we might as well deport all of the immigrants currently living in the West. The same must be done by Muslims who seek to deal with this issue, so that everyone will be working together to minimize the situation we find ourselves in. If we in the West do not seek to understand Islam and live peacefully with Muslims, then we will slowly lose our reputation as a multi-cultural society and we will slowly gain a reputation that is similar to that of the United States.


  • Akkad, Moustapha. The Message. Released 1976.
  • ‘Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. 10th ed. Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1999.
  • Gulen, M. Fethullah. The Messenger of God: Muhammad, The Light, Inc., New Jersey.
  • Gulen, M. Fethullah. Questions and Answes about Faith I, The Light, Inc., New Jersey.
  • Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence. Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil. The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Lawrence, Bruce B., Shattering the Myth. Islam Beyond Violence. New Jersey: Princeton, 1998.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Crisis of Islam. Holy War and Unholy Terror. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors. Thinking About Religion after September 11, University of Chicago, 2003.