The word “jihad” comes from the Arabic root jahada, meaning “to exert an effort” or “to strive” toward a goal, and the term is often used in the Muslim world in several different ways. Indeed, in the Middle East, “jihad” is often used in social or economic contexts, similar to the West where politicians or newspapers speak about waging a crusade against poverty, homelessness, or illiteracy. The Muslim use of the word “jihad,” however, is often misunderstood in the West, and the common English translation of it as “holy war” is overly simplistic and emphasizes only one of several different aspects of this word.

In its most basic sense, there are two different kinds of jihad: al-jihad al-akbar (the greater struggle or effort) and al-jihad al-asghar (the lesser form of struggle). The greater jihad refers to the internal struggles that all people deal with on a daily basis to be good and honest and to obey the laws of God. The difficulties of living a morally upright life when faced with the world’s constant temptations is the most common use of the term “jihad” in the Islamic world; such a struggle between doing good and avoiding evil is a concept common to all religious traditions and is not unique to Islam.

On the other hand, the lesser jihad refers to the outer, and at times military, struggle in de fense of the true religion, Islam. Just as often, if not more so, the outer, or lesser, jihad can involve simply preaching the faith to unbelievers. But when jihad involves military action, not just anyone can declare what can also be referred to as a jihad of the sword, and there are strict rules for waging such military efforts. At times, the term has been used freely by individuals in the Muslim world who have no authority to declare a jihad but attempt to use religious terminology as a rallying point in furtherance of their own secular political or military agendas, such as Sad dam Hussein’s declaration of a jihad against coalition forces invading Iraq in 1991. In addition, suicide bombers often describe themselves and are reported by the media as waging jihad; however, taking one’s life is forbidden in Islam, just as in Christianity, and thus such incidents should not be considered within the context of struggle for the sake of the religion but rather as an expression of political, social, and/or economic disenfranchisement.

A jihad of the sword can only be declared or sanctioned on the basis of a religious authority, such as a widely recognized Muslim scholar or judge. Modern-day scholars in both the Sunni and Shia traditions agree that such a jihad is only permissible for the purposes of defense. In addition, the lesser jihad is never waged to force conversion to Islam, for Surah (Chapter) 2:256 of the Quran allows for freedom of religion and is translated as saying that “There is no compulsion in religion.”

The religion of Islam spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and far beyond in the seventh and eighth centuries, eventually extending from Spain and Morocco in the West to as far as north west India in the East by roughly 750. These early centuries witnessed frequent warfare, and the rules established by the religion in governing the conduct of warfare became an effort to exercise some control over these ongoing conflicts. These same rules apply to the exercise of jihad and can be found not only in the Quran but also in the Hadith (the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) and eventually were incorporated into the corpus of Islamic law. For example, warfare is to be limited to combatants only, and it is not permissible for Muslims involved in any kind of warfare to kill women (except when they take up arms against Muslim armies), children, the elderly, or the injured; to torture or otherwise humiliate prisoners of war (although they can be killed in certain circumstances); or to destroy places of worship, crops, trees, or livestock. In addition, there is a code of honor and behavior that all Muslims must follow that clearly outlines treatment and exchange of prisoners, avoidance of blind revenge or retaliation, and insistence on mandatory peace negotiations at the enemy’s request. Moreover, the jihad must be openly declared, and the enemy must first be given the opportunity to convert to Islam before an attack can be launched.

An example from Islamic history when the lesser jihad, or jihad of the sword, was properly employed for the defense of the religion and pro claimed openly through the appropriate channels can be seen in the wake of the First Crusade. Refugees from Jerusalem, which had been captured and sacked in 1099, fled to Damascus and appeared before the grand qadi (religious judge) of Damascus, Abu Saad al-Harawi, to relate what had happened to the third-holiest city in Islam. The grand qadi then traveled to Baghdad to inform the Abbasid caliph, al-Mustazhir Billah (r. 1094-1118), of these events, and the proclaiming of a jihad against the European invaders soon followed. Although it would take approximately another 50 years for Muslim armies to begin to mount an effective counterattack against the European crusaders, this call for jihad is considered to be the first act of resistance in defense of Islam and its holy sites in Jerusalem during this period.

Rules of the Lesser Jihad

An account demonstrating the rule that jihad of the sword is not allowed for the sake of hatred or blind revenge is found in Book I of the Mathnawi by the Sufi mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) and relates the actions of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. In hand-to-hand combat during a battle in the early days of Islam, Ali overpowered his enemy and threw him to the ground. As a last act of hatred, the opposing soldier spat in Ali’s face. At that point, Ali got up, put away his sword, and refused to kill the man. The enemy soldier expressed surprise and asked Ali why he did not kill him. Ali answered that previously he had been fighting for the truth (al-Haqq) of Islam, but when the soldier spat in his face, he had become angry. Remembering the rule that fighting for the sake of hatred or revenge is not allowed, Ali stopped himself and refused to kill the soldier. The account concludes by saying that Ali’s actions so impressed the enemy warrior that he immediately converted to Islam.

The Greater Jihad

Hadith records that upon returning from a military expedition against Mecca, the Prophet Muham mad told his companions: “We have returned from the lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad.” In his Masnevi-i Manavi (also known as the Mathnawi), a massive work of spiritual stories and poems in Persian whose title translates as Rhyming Couplets of Profound Spiritual Meaning, Rumi explains the meaning of this story.

“O kings, we have slain the outward enemy, (but) there remains within (us) a worse enemy than he.

To slay this (enemy) is not the work of reason and intelligence; the inward lion is not subdued by the hare.

This carnal self is Hell, and Hell is a dragon (the fire of) which is not diminished by oceans. . . .

When I turned back from the outer warfare, I set my face towards the inner warfare.

We have returned from the lesser Jihad, we are engaged along with the Prophet in the greater Jihad. . . .

Deem of small account the lion (champion) who breaks the ranks (of the enemy): the (true) lion is he that breaks. . . himself.”

The Mathnawi of Jalalu’din Rumi, 8 vols., translated by Reynald A. Nicholson (London: Printed by Cambridge University Press for the Trustees of the “E. J. W. Gibb Memorial,” 1925-1940), 2:76.

Bibliography Cook, David. Understanding Jihad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Firestone, Reuvan. Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Johnson, James Turner. The Holy War Idea in West ern and Islamic Traditions. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997. Khadduri, Majid. War and Peace in the Law of Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1955.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.