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What Is JIHAD?

From The Islamic Tradition

Edited by OmarKN

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"The mujahid is he who makes jihad against his nafs (ego) for the sake of obeying Allah.”
Hadith from Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

1. Introduction

In chapters 1 - 3 are presented some quotes from 'Jihad Explained', by Dr. Amir Ali.1

"For Muslims the term JIHAD is applied to all forms of STRIVING and has developed some special meanings over time.

"It is indeed a struggle - a JIHAD - to put Allah ahead of our loved ones, our wealth, our worldly ambitions and our own lives.

"The faithful believer will prefer Allah and His Messenger and strive in His way! Reference to Quran 9:23, 24

2. Resisting Pressure

The subtitle ’Resisting Pressure’2 (from Dr. Amir Ali) is fitting, because Muslims and almost everyone in this postmodern world is exposed to all kinds of misunderstandings, troubles and pressures. Fundamentally this is because of the absence of any higher principles in the mind of people, instead they are continuously fed with new-fangled ideas and confronted with mostly unwanted, unnecessary inventions 3 and intellectual superficiality.4

There is an ongoing process of cultural and especially metaphysical alienation,5 where only an authentic religious tradition is able to provide for meaning and spiritual direction. In Islam this is possible firstly through the study and practice of the revelation of the Holy Quran, and secondly by Islam being a link to the wisdom of past humanity.

Postmodernism, which is the ruling paradigm6 in the West (and ever more in the East)7, in contrast has - to a great extent - broken with its own past, the spiritual capital of which is more speedily eroding than the ice sheet in Greenland and elsewhere8. Read more: Modernism And Postmodern Thought.

Dr. Amir Ali describes the pressures as follows:

"Once a person has made up his mind to put the Creator of the Universe above all else, he often comes under intense pressures. It is not easy to resist such pressures and STRIVE to maintain dedication and love of Allah over all else. A person who has turned to Islam from another religion may be subjected to pressures designed to turn him back to the religion of the family.”9

It is therefore of utmost importance to help each other on the way in a spirit of sincerity and true brotherhood. This is also Jihád.

3. Three Verses From The Quran

There are many more verses on striving (JAHADA) in the Holy Quran, here are three:

And whoever strives

{ And whosoever STRIVES (JAHADA), STRIVES (YUJAHIDU) only for himself, for lo! Allah is altogether independent of the universe.} Quran 29-6

And STRIVE (JAHIDU) for Allah

{ And STRIVE (JAHIDU) for Allah with the endeavor (JIHADIHI) which is His right. He has chosen you and has not laid upon you in the DEEN (religion) any hardship…} Quran 22-78

but strive against them by the Quran

{ So obey not the rejecters of faith, but strive (Jahidhum) against them by it (the Quran) with a great endeavor.} Quran 25-52

And those who strive for Us

{And those who strive for Us - We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.} Quran 29-69

Concerning Sura 29 verse 69: "This is a Meccan Sura and the two verses (29-6 & 29-69) refer to Jihad al-Nafs. There was no military jihad then.”

Such a command cannot mean military jihad, as there was no permission - much less an order - for such a jihad until the Madinan period.”10

In conclusion Dr. Amir Ali, wrote:

"Islam does not teach, nor do Muslims desire, conversion of any people for fear, greed, marriage or any other form of coercion.

In conclusion, jihad in Islam is STRIVING IN THE WAY OF ALLAH by pen, tongue, hand, media and, if inevitable, with arms. However, jihad in Islam does not include striving for individual or national power, dominance, glory, wealth, prestige or pride.” 11

4. Other Important Aspects oF Jihad

4.1 About the "Greater Jihad" hadith

There has been a discussion among the hadith scholars if the following is an authentic hadith or not:

"Some troops came back from an expedition and went to see the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu `alayhi wa-Sallam.) He said: "You have come for the best, from the smaller jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar)." Someone said, "What is the greater jihad?" He said: "The servant's struggle against his lust"(mujahadat al-`abdi hawah).

Although this saying cannot be confirmed as hadith because of its weak chain of one or two of its transmitters, none-the-less Ibn Taymiyya, who is otherwise often used for more rigid interpretations:

"leaves no doubt as to the fact that jihad al-nafs [striving hard against ones evil inclinations] comes first and is the precondition sine qua non of military jihad as he states it…: 'The jihad of nafs and hawa is the foundation of jihad of the disbelievers and hypocrites; one cannot do jihad of them before he first does jihad of his nafs and hawa, then he goes out and fights them.'”12

This jihad al-nafs is not something which can be done in anafternoon, or by talking about it. It is a lifelong occupation and this struggle needs the guidance of those who have gone the Path before. The snares of Shaytan (rajīm ) are laid out for us everywhere and anywhere when he said:

I will lie in ambush for them
Then I will come at them

{ 'I will lie in ambush for them on your straight path. Then I will come at them, from in front of them and behind them, from their right and from their left. You will not find most of them thankful.'}

In the light of this only the blind, followers of blind leaders, will deem themselves ready to go ahead. But without jihad of the nafs, and all the other conditions of our Law (Shari`a ) fulfilled, fighting will lead to Hellfire. Says Shaykh Hakeem Tirmidhi: "Whoso desires the reward of God the Lord of Might and Majesty, let him keep to this battle, and let him be sincere in every matter in order to purify his worship.”13

Related to this, Shafi`i said,14 may God have mercy on him, concerning hypocrisy:

"Only the sincere one (mukhlis) knows hypocrisy (riya')." This means that it is impossible to know the reality of hypocrisy and see its hidden shades except for one who resolutely seeks (arada) sincerity. That one strives for a long time (yajtahidu azmanan) searching and meditating and examining at length within himself until he knows or knows something of what hypocrisy is. This does not happen for everyone. Indeed, this happens only with the special ones (al-khawass). But for a given individual to claim that he knows what hypocrisy is, this is real ignorance on his part.

"To claim that he knows what hypocrisy is,” or worse to think that has freed himself from it, or that he does not need to exert himself in this respect to the utmost (that he has fulfilled or does not need the jihadu-n nafs ), and that he can endulge in all kinds of childish activism or militancy, is ridiculous to say the least. Instead it is very dangerous, the least danger is that the prestige of Islam will be tainted. This person cannot be successful, except if Allah grants him success. But see how Allah treats the munáfiqūn - hypocrites! 15

4.2 Jihad al-Nafs: Striving for Self-Perfection16

Further, the Prophet ( sallAllahu `aleihi wa sallam ) upon him peace said in a sound hadith:17

"The mujahid is he who makes jihad against his nafs (ego) for the sake of obeying Allah.”

It is therefore wrong to claim, as some have done, that "in Islamic literature, when the word 'mujahideen' is used without any qualification, it means one and only one thing: those who fight in the battlefield for the sake of Allah.”18 This is what they want to make us believe, then how about the 20 years in Mecca, when armed defense was forbidden.19 Muslims had the opportunity to develop - under the leadership of the Holy Prophet ( sallAllahu `aleihi wa sallam ) - the means and hows of non-armed resistance against the bullying and harassing by the infidels (káfir) of Mecca.20 This is another kind of Jihad. (See chapter 6 below)

4.3 Fatwa Against The Targeting Of Civilians

On the issue of targeting civilians and civilian centers by [the ugly phenomenon of] suicide bombing21 in response to a pseudo-fatwa by a deviant UK-based group ('al-Muhajiroun') which advocates such crimes. This fatwa was "written in response to the fitna reeling this mercied Umma, day in and day out, which is partly caused by those who, wilfully or not, misunderstand the legal discussions of the chapter on warfare outside its proper contexts, which have been used by them to justify their wrong actions.”

"The result in Islamic jurisprudence is: if a Muslim carries out such an attack voluntarily, he becomes a murderer and not a martyr or a hero, and he will be punished for that [in this and] in the Next World.”22

4.4 Difference Between War And Jihad

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf about what Muslims can be proud of in their history:23

"There is a difference between war and jihad, it is not he same.”

"Jihad is for elevating the Word of Allah, not for agression, revenge or desire. If it is for this we will [not] be helped by Allah.”

4.5 The Concept of Jihad In Islam - Habib Ali Al Jifri

The Concept of Jihad In Islam - Habib Ali AlJifri-Translated By Sh Hamza Yusuf24

4.6 Understanding Jihad In Islam (Audio)

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf-Understanding Jihad In Islam - Jihad Is A Nobel Concept ~ 6min

4.7 Muslims' Outlook On Jihad Today

"Today Muslims' outlook on Jihad are one of the following:

  1. All types of Jihad is irrelevant to Muslims today.
  2. All types of Jihad is justified except these types which involve the use of armed resistance.
  3. All types of Jihad is very much relevant and needed today, from the inward spiritual struggle against one's lower self, to activism for peace, justice, social justice,...etc, to armed resistance whenever armed resistance is justified; for example against foreign occupation, oppression, tyranny and unjust.”25

This is what Muslims may be thinking, but what concerns us here at Livingislam.org are the traditional, "classical” or normative teachings of Islam.

5. Texts Which Need Clarification

5.1 What is Jihad?

"The word Jihad stems from the Arabic root word J-H-D, which means 'strive.' Other words derived from this root include 'effort,' 'labor'… 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 as a last resort and not 'to spread Islam by the sword' as the stereotype would have one believe.” (From About.com - Islam) 26

What is not mentioned here is that nobody can initiate a 'military effort,' except the ruler or state of the Muslims. There must not be any vigilantism27 in Islam. (See chapter 4c)

Furtheron in the text:

"Islam never tolerates unprovoked aggression from its own side; 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 to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution, because the Qur'an says that "persecution is worse than slaughter" and "let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression" (Qur'an 2:190-193). Therefore, if non-Muslims are peaceful or indifferent to Islam, there is no justified reason to declare war on them.”28

But to 'declare war' is not the matter of anyone, except the ruler or state of the Muslims. There must not be any vigilantism in Islam.29

5.2 Concerning the Misuse of the Term Jihad

"Jihad was and still being invoked in Muslim protests against foreign occupation, oppression and exploitation during colonialism, post-colonialism, and neocolonialism, a cause perceived as both just and necessary. However some Muslims must bear responsibility for the bad name given to Jihad. Today some contemporary governments and groups in Muslim countries make reference to Jihad only in its military meaning, through words and deeds, in order to hide their moral, social and political bankruptcy. In the process they kill the innocent, cause only death and destruction and do not advance the cause of peace and justice. But regrettably they are the ones who show up regularly in the newspapers and on television.”30

6. Peaceful Jihad - The Essential Kind Of Jihad

"Peaceful jihad includes each and every effort that the person who embraces Islam makes in order to change himself to what this religion wants him to be. Behaving as a true Muslim means [establishing the 5 prayers and the other 4 pillars of Islam,] giving up evil personal and social habits; resisting bad desires; sharing with the poor; helping the needy; being patient, forgiving, fair, kind, compassionate …etc. All these aspects of good behavior are forms of peaceful jihad. Peaceful jihad is the struggle against the bad qualities of the lower self.

This form of jihad includes also every peaceful effort to change others and the world for the best. For instance, spreading the message of the Qur'an and the values of Islam – such as justice, compassion, and forgiveness – is peaceful jihad. It is certainly true to state that peaceful jihad is what the life of the Muslim is all about, as he/she must be in continuous struggle against evil, whether inside him/her or in the world.”31

The different aspects of peaceful jihad are the "forms of struggle that the Muslim has to engage in from day one of his recognition of his Islamic identity, acceptance that life shouldn't be led arbitrarily, and adoption of the Islamic way of living.”


This is exemplified in the verses of Sura 23-9 as { those who keep up their prayers }, or in Sura 3-134:


{ Those who spend [in the way of Allah] in ease and in adversity, restrain [their] anger, and pardon people; and Allah loves the doers of good } 3-134] which talk about doing good, striving for the best, as "everyday challenges, which is why peaceful jihad is an essential aspect of the life of the Muslim.”32

7. The Status oF Jihad In Western Lands

The type of rules of the ahkam as-sultania (related to governmental authority, to the state, about a penal code of the Muslims, about collecting zakaah, the establishment of imams, about police, judges and courts etc.) are not the concern of those people who are living in a land in which there is not a legitimate state authority of Muslims.33

[Instead we can see as analogy from our prophetic history the period of Makkah, when the principle concern of the Prophet ﷺ was a special one:]

7.1 Prophet Muhammad's ﷺ Task In Makkah

If you look at the Makkan period, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, was not making any claims to government authority. [Instead what he did was that:]

  1. He was calling people to tauhīd: the unity of Allah.
  2. He was calling people to prayer.
  3. He was calling people to the purification of their hearts.
  4. He was calling people to leave shirk.

7.2 The Jihád oF The Tongue

All this is known as the jihád of the tongue: jihád al-kalima; it is not the jihád of the sword-or now the gun or the atom bomb or whatever. It was the jihád of the tongue. Allah subhaana wa ta'aala said,


"Jaahidhum bihi" means to struggle against them with the Quran. In other words, "speak the Quran to them, and struggle against them with the truth in word;" and this was the jihád of Makkah. You can say in a modern sense that this is speaking with a strong tongue in the face of wrong, in the face of injustices.

7.3 Jihád In Its Broader Understanding

When the Prophet ﷺ sallallaahu 'alayhi wa sallam, went to Medina, a different stage began, and there was now a jihád of a physical type, a martial struggle where they went out. [The Muslims of Madina were attacked and they defended themselves and the Prophet ﷺ !]

However, Allah subhaana wa ta'aala says to fight them until the war comes to an end. This type of jihád has an end in time, and yet jihád in its broader understanding in the Sharia' never ends.

The struggle for the sake of Allah never ends as long as somebody is in this abode. This is why jihád is the expenditure of one's efforts for the sake of good. It means to do good things:

  1. Jihád is to do good
  2. Jihád is to to help people in the society
  3. It is to expend one's wealth - to give charity

[So] it means to exert one's effort in the society to help people, to expend one's wealth-to give charity-to change the conditions around you: if they are bad, make them better. This can be done without martial effort in many places, and this is still a type of jihád.

This is why it is wrong for people to narrow the understanding of jihád to some limited definition which only gives the understanding of military struggle because that is not what jihád means in Islam.


(End of Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah's speech, here in chapter 7)

Oriental Pattern


Related texts
link-in This is Not the Path to Paradise! Response to Daesh (is not: ”IS/ ISIS”),
by Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *