Comprehensive meaning of jihad in Islam

Comprehensive meaning of jihad in Islam

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Jihad means to struggle for the sake of Allah in a righteous cause. It takes many forms such as the inward struggle to achieve a pure heart, the struggle against sinful temptations, the struggle to help others in need, and the struggle to educate our communities. When necessary, jihad can refer to an armed struggle in defense of the community. Jihad has never meant “holy war” (al-harb al-muqaddis) because war in Islam is never holy; it can only be just or unjust.

Muslim scholars have written at length about the inward struggle against sinful desires, or the jihad against the soul. This jihad is called the greater jihad (jihad al-akbar), whereas armed struggle is called the lesser jihad (jihad al-asghar).

The spiritual jihad is the greater jihad because it must be done by everyone at all times, whereas military jihad is the lesser jihad because it has specific conditions and is not an obligation upon every Muslim. The term “holy war” was never used by the Prophet, his companions, or the great Muslim scholars who succeeded them.

Jabir reported: Some people returned to the Prophet from a military expedition. The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

قَدِمْتُمْ خَيْرَ مَقْدَمٍ مِنَ الْجِهَادِ الأَصْغَرِ إِلَى الْجِهَادِ الأَكْبَرِ

You have returned with a good return, from the lesser struggle (jihad) unto the greater struggle.

They said, “O Messenger of Allah, what is the greater jihad?” The Prophet said:

مُجَاهَدَةُ الْعَبْدِ هَوَاهُ

It is the servant’s struggle against his desires.

Source: Kitab Az-Zuhd Al-Bayhaqi 383, Grade: Da’eef

The chain of narration for this tradition is weak, as it is more likely the saying of Ibrahim ibn Abu Alqamah and not the Prophet.

Ibn Rajab reported: Ibrahim ibn Abu Alqamah would say to people when they returned from an expedition:

قَدْ جِئْتُمْ مِنَ الْجِهَادِ الْأَصْغَرِ فَمَا فَعَلْتُمْ فِي الْجِهَادِ الْأَكْبَرِ

You have come from the lesser struggle (jihad) unto the greater struggle.

They said, “What is the greater struggle?” Ibrahim said:

 جِهَادُ الْقَلْبِ

It is the struggle of the heart.

Source: Jami’ Al-Ulum wal-Hikam 19

Nonetheless, the meaning has been accepted by Muslim scholars and it is also strengthened by other authentic traditions.

Fadalah ibn Ubaid reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

The one who strives (mujahid) in the way of Allah the Exalted is he who strives against his soul.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 23445, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

أَلَا أُخْبِرُكُمْ بِالْمُؤْمِنِ مَنْ أَمِنَهُ النَّاسُ عَلَى أَمْوَالِهِمْ وَأَنْفُسِهِمْ وَالْمُسْلِمُ مَنْ سَلِمَ النَّاسُ مِنْ لِسَانِهِ وَيَدِهِ وَالْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي طَاعَةِ اللَّهِ وَالْمُهَاجِرُ مَنْ هَجَرَ الْخَطَايَا وَالذَّنُوبَ

Have I not informed you? The believer is the one who is trusted with the lives and wealth of people, and the Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand people are safe. The mujahid is one who wages jihad against himself in obedience to Allah, and the emigrant is one who emigrates from sin and evil.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 23438, Grade: Sahih

On the basis of such narrations, Ibn Al-Qayyim said:

جِهَادُ النَّفْسِ مُقَدَّمًا عَلَى جِهَادِ الْعَدُوِّ فِي الْخَارِجِ وَأَصْلًا لَهُ

The jihad against the soul takes precedence over jihad against outward enemies because it is the foundation for it.

Source: Zaad Al-Ma’ad

Jihad can take the form of education and preaching to the community.

Allah said:

فَلَا تُطِعِ الْكَافِرِينَ وَجَاهِدْهُم بِهِ جِهَادًا كَبِيرًا

Do not obey the unbelievers, but strive against them with (the Quran) a great striving.

Surah Al-Furqan 25:52

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ دَخَلَ مَسْجِدَنَا هَذَا لِيَتَعَلَّمَ خَيْرًا أَوْ لِيُعَلِّمَهُ كَانَ كَالْمُجَاهِدِ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

Whoever enters our mosque in order to teach goodness or to learn it himself, then he is like one who is striving in the cause of Allah.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 8396, Grade: Hasan

Jihad can take the form of speaking out against injustice.

Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

إِنَّ مِنْ أَعْظَمِ الْجِهَادِ كَلِمَةَ عَدْلٍ عِنْدَ سُلْطَانٍ جَائِرٍ

Verily, among the greatest of struggles is a word of justice in front of a tyrant.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2174, Grade: Hasan

Abu Umamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَحَبُّ الْجِهَادِ إِلَى اللَّهِ كَلِمَةُ حَقٍّ تُقَالُ لإِمَامٍ جَائِرٍ

The most beloved struggle (jihadto Allah is a word of truth in front of a tyrannical leader.

Source: Mu’jam Al-Kabeer 8002, Grade: Hasan

Jihad can take the form of service to others in charity, especially parents.

Abdullah bin Amr reported: A man came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “I pledge allegiance to you for emigration and striving in the way of Allah, seeking reward.” The Prophet said:

فَهَلْ مِنْ وَالِدَيْكَ أَحَدٌ حَيٌّ

Are one of your parents living?

He said, “Yes, rather both of them.” The Prophet said:

فَتَبْتَغِي الْأَجْرَ مِنْ اللَّهِ

Do you seek reward from Allah?

He said yes. The Prophet said:

فَارْجِعْ إِلَى وَالِدَيْكَ فَأَحْسِنْ صُحْبَتَهُمَا

Then return to your parents and treat them with good company.

Source: Sahih Muslim 2549, Grade: Sahih

In another narration, the Prophet said:

فَفِيهِمَا فَجَاهِدْ

 Then strive in their service.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2842, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Mu’awiyah ibn Jahima reported: Jahima came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, I intend to join the expedition and I seek your advice.” The Prophet said:

هَلْ لَكَ مِنْ أُمٍّ

Do you have a mother?

He said yes. The Prophet said:

فَالْزَمْهَا فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ تَحْتَ رِجْلَيْهَا

Stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.

Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i 3104, Grade: Sahih

In these traditions, we learn that a man’s struggle to care for his parents in their old age takes precedence over armed struggle. Likewise, any act of charity that requires effort can be properly referred to as jihad.

Allah said:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا ۚ وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Those who strive for Us, We will surely guide them to Our ways. Verily, Allah is with the doers of good.

Surat Al-Ankabut 29:69

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

السَّاعِي عَلَى الْأَرْمَلَةِ وَالْمِسْكِينِ كَالْمُجَاهِدِ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ

One who strives to help a widow or the poor is like one who strives in the cause of Allah.

Source: Sahih Muslim 2982, Grade: Sahih

Jihad can take the form of performing acts of ritual worship for the purpose of purifying the heart from sinful temptations.

Allah said:

وَجَاهِدُوا فِي اللَّهِ حَقَّ جِهَادِهِ ۚ هُوَ اجْتَبَاكُمْ وَمَا جَعَلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ مِنْ حَرَجٍ ۚ مِّلَّةَ أَبِيكُمْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ۚ هُوَ سَمَّاكُمُ الْمُسْلِمِينَ مِن قَبْلُ وَفِي هَٰذَا لِيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْكُمْ وَتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ ۚ فَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِاللَّهِ

Strive for Allah with the striving due to Him. He has chosen you and has not placed any hardship upon you in the religion. It is the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you Muslims before and in this scripture that the Messenger may be a witness over you and you may be witnesses over the people. So establish prayer and give charity and hold fast to Allah.

Surah Al-Hajj 22:78

In this verse, the command to strive in the way of Allah is followed by the command to pray and give in charity, without any reference to fighting. The Prophet would strive to perform such acts of worship during the last ten night of Ramadan.

Aisha reported:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَجْتَهِدُ فِي الْعَشْرِ الْأَوَاخِرِ مَا لَا يَجْتَهِدُ فِي غَيْرِهِ

The Prophet would exert himself (yajtahidu) in worship during the last ten nights more than at any other time.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1175, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet commanded the Muslims to strive in jihad with supplications and prayers.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

أَتُحِبُّونَ أَنْ تَجْتَهِدُوا فِي الدُّعَاءِ قُولُوا اللَّهُمَّ أَعِنَّا عَلَى شُكْرِكَ وَذِكْرِكَ وَحُسْنِ عِبَادَتِكَ

Do you love to strive (tajtahidu) in supplication? Say: O Allah, help me to be grateful to you, to remember you, and to worship you in a good manner.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 7922, Grade: Sahih 

Likewise, the Prophet referred to the Hajj pilgrimage as jihad.

Aisha reported: She said, “O Messenger of Allah, we view striving in the cause of Allah as the most virtuous deed, so shall we not strive?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَا لَكِنَّ أَفْضَلَ الْجِهَادِ حَجٌّ مَبْرُورٌ

No, rather the most virtuous struggle is an accepted pilgrimage.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 1448, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet did not make it a condition of faith for Muslims to join the armed struggle of a Muslim army.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَبِرَسُولِهِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَاةَ وَصَامَ رَمَضَانَ كَانَ حَقًّا عَلَى اللَّهِ أَنْ يُدْخِلَهُ الْجَنَّةَ جَاهَدَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَوْ جَلَسَ فِي أَرْضِهِ الَّتِي وُلِدَ فِيهَا

Whoever believes in Allah and His Messenger, establishes prayer, and fasts the month of Ramadan will have a right upon Allah that he will be entered into Paradise whether he strives in the cause of Allah or remains in the land in which he was born.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2637, Grade: Sahih

This is because military service is a collective obligation (fard al-kifayyah) and not an individual obligation (fard al-ain), meaning that if the Muslim community is strong enough to defend itself from aggression, then it is not an obligation to join the armed struggle.

However, if the rights of others are being violated and a person has the ability to help them, then the morally upright deed is to defend the human rights of the oppressed.

Allah said:

وَمَا لَكُمْ لَا تُقَاتِلُونَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَالْمُسْتَضْعَفِينَ مِنَ الرِّجَالِ وَالنِّسَاءِ وَالْوِلْدَانِ الَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا أَخْرِجْنَا مِنْ هَٰذِهِ الْقَرْيَةِ الظَّالِمِ أَهْلُهَا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ وَلِيًّا وَاجْعَل لَّنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ نَصِيرًا

What is the matter with you that you do not fight in the cause of Allah and for the oppressed among men, women, and children who say: Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a helper and protector?

Surat An-Nisa 4:75

Therefore, while the spiritual struggle is primary in Islam, an armed struggle in defense of the oppressed is a tremendously virtuous deed for those soldiers and officers who put themselves in harm’s way to save others.

In conclusion, jihad in Islam refers to the spiritual struggle against sin, the struggle to educate and improve our communities, and an armed struggle in defense of the oppressed. Jihad does not refer to a holy war, because war in Islam is never holy; rather, war in Islam can only be just or unjust.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

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