What Does Jihad Really Mean?

No, it's not perpetual war against non-Muslims, but the struggle to do good on earth for the sake of God.

Excerpted with permission from "The Beliefnet Guide to Islam," published by Three Leaves Press/Doubleday.

The term

jihad

has taken on a very charged meaning in popular American culture, especially after September 11. Jihad is most often translated as “holy war,” a term drawn from our Western Christian vocabulary. In fact, the term “holy war” does not exist in the Islamic lexicon. Some claim jihad is the perpetual war to convert the “abode of war” (i.e. non-Muslim areas) to the “abode of Islam.” There are some Muslims who believe this as well, and there was a period in Islamic history when this was the official policy of the Muslim state, particularly during the Umayyad dynasty (680-750 C.E.) Yet some scholars suggest that the Ummayads put this policy in place in order to deflect attention away from their oppressive social policies and corrupt administration. In fact the most famous Umayyad leader, Umar ibn Abd Al Aziz, put a stop to this policy because he knew it was unsustainable. That jihad means a perpetual war against non-Muslims is supported neither by the Qur’an nor the hadith.

Jihad literally means “struggle,” or “striving.” It is not, as some have claimed, the “sixth pillar” of Islam. Jihad is a very broad concept in Islam; it is an activist principle: the struggle to do good on earth for the sake of God. In the Qur’an it is a word that is distinct from qital, which means armed conflict. In some instances, as a last resort, jihad can and does encompass armed conflict. Yet armed jihad has very strict rules and regulations, as we discussed earlier. When used in the Qur’an, jihad is very general in nature, while the verses that speak about qital are very specific and have a number of qualifiers. For example, verse 2:190, of which we spoke earlier in detail, has very specific parameters: fighting is allowed only against those who fight the Muslims. Jihad, on the other hand, is much more broad:

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“O you who have attained to faith! Shall I point to you a bargain that will save you from grievous suffering [in this world and in the life to come]? You are to believe in God and His Apostle, and to strive
hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives: this is for your own good—if you but knew it!
[If you do so,] He will forgive you your sins, and will admit you into gardens through which running waters flow, and into goodly mansions in [those] gardens of perpetual bliss: that [will be] the triumph supreme!
And [withal, He will grant you] yet another thing that you dearly love: succour from God [in this world], and a victory soon to come: and [thereof, O Prophet,] give you a  glad tiding to all who believe." (61:11-13)

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