What is jihad?

With the current unrest in the world because of the recent attacks by the Islamic state and the refugee crisis it has spawned, it behooves us to consider the meaning of jihad. Jihad has no single meaning or application among Muslims. Several major teachings exist about jihad. These teachings are all valid expression of Islam and have a lineage of followers tracing back centuries. Even though the different groups of Islam disagree very strongly with one another, none can say the others teaching of jihad is not consistent with historical Islam. This article does not attempt to discuss which definition of jihad most accurately reflects the teachings of the Quran or of Muhammed. The issue of rightness and wrongness is necessarily left out of this discussion.

Most define jihad as a holy war, though some prefer to use other terms that do not have a violent undertone to them. It seems that the vast majority of Muslims understand jihad in terms of a personal battle against evil in one’s own life. For many Muslims, jihad is the war in oneself to do that which is acceptable to Allah. Jihad is the personal battle to walk in the way of Allah. This is by far the most common definition of jihad, and one that Muslim apologists are quick to cite as proof that jihad is not actually violent. Personal jihad against one’s own evil inclinations is not the only meaning of jihad. Some see jihad as a peaceful struggle against injustice and poverty. In this version of jihad, the battle is against societal ills and the inequality of the world that results in poverty and unjust treatment of others. This version of jihad might also include the peaceful attempts to bring Sharia law into a community or nation. The third major understanding of jihad is the one most commonly associated with those who commit acts of terrorism. This understanding of jihad sees it as justified violence against non-Muslims for Allah’s sake. They see attacks upon infidels and non-Muslim nations as necessary for the spread of Islam and as preemptive strikes to defend Muslim countries against the encroachment of the nations. Not every Muslim accepts a violent interpretation of jihad, nor do only the terrorists group accept the violent definition. In all three cases jihad is a holy war against the forces of evil in this world. The differences lie in understanding who the enemy is and how to best combat that enemy.

Some Muslims hearing this range of definitions would protest that one or more are not right. Many Muslims deny the validity of one or more common expression of jihad. This should not be surprising. Most major religions have disagreements regarding the right understanding of particular teachings. Among Christians there is widespread disagreement about baptism. Baptism is understood to be sprinkling water on a person, pouring water on a person or immersing a person in water. Some groups accept all three modes as valid and some groups accept only one mode as valid. Baptism is believed by some to be an act of dedication performed upon an infant, an act which brings a baby into the family of God, an act which testifies of salvation received or an act which brings salvation. The varied beliefs about baptism come from different interpretations of what the Bible teaches, but they are all mainstream beliefs among Christianity. One can argue that a particular group’s belief about baptism is not Biblical. One can argue that a particular belief about baptism is contrary to the message of Christianity, but one cannot legitimately argue that a particular belief about baptism is not a historical expression of Christianity. In similar fashion, no consensus Islamic teaching about jihad exists. Many groups hold and teach different meanings about jihad and would argue very strongly against certain other teachings of jihad. All of the major teachings of jihad find strong support within Islam. The violent and non-violent applications of jihad are legitimate, historical Islamic interpretations that have existed for centuries.

Jihad has a range of meanings, all based upon different interpretations of the Quran. Not all who practice jihad are bent on the destruction of western society. Many Muslims who practice jihad vigorously condemn the Islamic kamikaze who perpetrate terrorist attacks. But not all. When jihad is discussed it is always wisest to ask what the speaker means and not assume a definition based upon the peaceful protests of one group or the violent denunciations of another.