Jihad and Terrorism

The word jihad is derived from the Arabic root "j-h-d, which means to strive or exert oneself or to struggle against something. But it most often has been mistranslated as ‘holy war’ It does not mean to fight. The Arabic word for fighting is "qital". When the word jihad is used in the Quran it is usually followed by the phrase "fi sabilillah", which means "in the Way of Allah ". Qital implies killing and bloodshed but Jihad implies struggling in a praiseworthy way, the Way of Allah. Jihad can be an internal struggle against our nature when it puts us at risk of turning against the Will of Allah, or it can be a struggle against an external enemy. In some instances jihad can refer to a war when an enemy could potentially force a Muslim nation into a position where they would be in opposition to the Will of Allah.

Jihad, as war is justified only within strict conditions. Muslims can go to war if an enemy intends to attack them. They may also go to war if a nation or group in power creates a barrier against the call of Islam; this means that a nation does not allow the freedom of that call and becomes an obstacle to the diffusion of Islam to other people. The Quran tells us that those barriers are to be removed. Likewise, in the case of a people subjected to oppression and tyranny; Islam says that we must fight those tyrants to deliver the oppressed from the claws of tyranny. This has been expressed in the Quran thus: "Why is it that you do not fight in the way of Allah and the way of the deprived…" (4:75) On the other hand, Islam does not allow for making war against those who quit oppression and do not wish to fight. "… Who come to you, their hearts shrinking from fighting you or fighting their own people; and if Allah had pleased, He would have given them power over you, so that they should have certainly fought you; therefore if they withdraw from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allah has not given you a way to war against them." (4:90)

While returning from a military campaign the Prophet Mohammed told his companions, "this day we are returning from the minor jihad to the major jihad."2 By this, he meant that they were returning from a military battle to the peaceful battle for self-control against their natural inclination or fleshly cravings. The major, or greater, jihad is a struggle against ourselves, not against an external enemy. It is the striving against our own bad nature or the temptations of Satan. This battle is difficult, lifelong and is required of Muslims. It is necessary to continually labor against anything within our own nature or any external source that would come between us as individuals, or as a nation, and the Will of Allah.

The Greater Jihad

What is this internal struggle? It is an active, continuous and conscious struggle to learn all we can about Islam, to teach what we have learned to others, to practice all we have learned, to encourage others to do the same, and to overcome all obstacles for the enactment of these endeavors. It can take many forms such as fighting the desire for material things, working on a change in mentality, bettering one’s self through education and rigorous study, or sacrificing property, time or emotional comfort for the worship of Allah. "Go forth light and heavy, and strive hard in Allah’s way with your property and your persons; this is better for you, if you know."(9:41) So, we are exhorted to be charitable as part of our jihad. It can take the form of good deeds. Worthy deeds might include helping orphans or the poor and homeless, standing up for the rights of those who are oppressed, or helping friends and neighbors. Studying scriptures in a scholarly way or teaching others is another important kind of jihad. "At the Last Judgment, the ink spent by scholars of religion will weigh equally to the blood of the martyrs."3 Internal jihad can also include restraining ourselves constantly from the sins of gossip, lying, cheating, insulting people, or being unkind. Our struggle is to submit ourselves to the Will of Allah in all that we do, with every breath we take. The greater jihad is one of the most important aspects of Islamic life. "Those of the believers who sit still, other than those who have a (disabling) hurt, are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah with their wealth and lives. Allah hath conferred on those who strive with their wealth and lives a rank above the sedentary. Unto each Allah hath promised good, but He hath bestowed on those who strive a great reward above the sedentary." (4:95)

A very important concept of jihad is the struggle for the good of Muslim society against corruption and decadence. "And hold fast by the covenant of Allah all together and be not disunited, and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your hearts so by His favor you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, then He saved you from it, thus does Allah make clear to you His communications that you may follow the right way. And from among you there should be a party who invite to good and enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful." (3:104-5) Justice and equality for all people is included in this concept. Education is necessary in order to provide the kind of environment that fosters justice and equality. Educational jihad requires Muslims to use all of their intellectual abilities for the realization of this ideal. Educational jihad can be thought of as the spreading of Islamic ideals within a Muslim society.

Jihad also includes the dissemination of Islamic ideals to other societies, cultures and nations. "Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and reason with them in the better way…" 16:125 This form of jihad, for the spreading of Islam among the unbelievers through discussion and civilized argument, not through war, is important in understanding that Muslims do not war with people because they are of a different religion; it illustrates the importance of restraint. It is sometimes also referred to as struggle of the tongue.

The Lesser Jihad or War

The concept of jihad as war is mentioned in the Qur’an. War, the minor jihad, is justified only for self-defense and the propagation of Islam as an ideal for justice and against oppression. "Fight them until there is no more persecution or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God; but if they desist let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression" (2:193) Self defense means repelling aggression against Muslim lives and property in case of an actual or expected attack by enemy forces. "Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but transgress not for God loves not the transgressors" (2:190) Preventing oppression and persecution of Muslims living outside of Islamic nations is also a means of defense; in other words defending religious freedom. The Qur’an supports this. "And why should you not fight in the cause of God and of those who being weak, are ill treated? Men, women and children whose cry is: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors and raise for us from You one who will protect" (4:75).

The dissemination of the Islamic ideal in nations where people are oppressed and not free to practice their religion can be a justification for war, but only until the oppressor ceases hostility and allows freedom of religion. Jihad does not mean conquering another people because of their religion or for forcing them to change their religion. Allah does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely, Allah loves the doers of justice. (60:8)

Another justification for jihad as defensive war is in retaliation for a breach of a pledge or treaty. "But if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and revile your religion, fight the chiefs of the unfaithful; for their oaths are nothing to them that thus they may be restrained" (Qur’an 9:12).

Muslims are cautioned by the Qur’an to avoid unsuitable methods of converting people to Islam on the premise that, if it were the will of God, all the people of this earth would be believers. Islam treasures righteousness, equity and cooperation in its dealings with non-Muslims. "If your Lord had willed they would all have believed-all who are on earth! Will you then compel humankind, against their will until they become believers?" (10:99) Jihad is never justified as a mean of conversion to Islam. The Qur’an states "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) "And say: The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve" (18:29) Christians and Jews are considered by Islam as People of the Book, because the three religions have many scriptures and beliefs in common, such as belief in The Ten Commandments given to Moses (Musa). Muslims believe in the prophets mentioned in both the Bible and the Torah, such as Abraham and Moses. Therefore, it is incumbent on Muslims to respect both religions and protect their followers from persecution as long as they respect the laws of the nation in which they are living. If jihad allowed the forcing of non-Muslims to convert, there would have been any non-Muslims living in Islamic countries. There are numerous historical examples of equitable treatment of Jews and Christians living within the borders of Islamic countries.

An example of regard for other religions involves the Prophet Muhammad. One day when he was with his companions a funeral procession was proceeding down the road. When the corpse passed the Prophet stood up to show courtesy. His companions asked him why he was standing for a Jewish procession and his reply was that although the deceased was not Muslim, he was human and deserved respect4.

In 1492, King Ferdinand of Spain issued the edict of expulsion and ordered conversion of all Jews and Muslims to Christianity. The Spanish Jews, who had lived in Spain for more than seven centuries were thrown out. Some of these refugees found homes in countries like The Netherlands, France and Italy. But by far the largest group preferred an Islamic country as a refuge. Their reason for this was that they had lived for years under Islamic rule in Grenada and Andalusia where they were treated as citizens. The Ottoman Empire invited them to live within its territory where they enjoyed both citizenship and freedom of religion.

Jihad is not terrorism

Jihad is not terrorism. Terrorism is war without rules and jihad requires those who go to war to follow very strict rules. For example within the context of Islam, it is forbidden in war to kill women or children or anyone who is not a soldier or who did not engage in battle. Before a war or a battle, the enemy should be given the option to surrender or to pay a tribute for protection instead of fighting. The rules of war as related by the Prophet Muhammad required Muslims to show much restraint. Not only is it forbidden to kill anyone who does not take up arms against you, but it is also forbidden to harm animals, damage trees, gardens or agricultural areas.

One misconception involves the proclamation of jihad as war. There are several important prerequisites for jihad, which must be satisfied before the initiation of any battle. As mentioned previously, there has to be a just cause (defense or preventing oppression). Another prerequisite is right intention, a fundamental condition for engaging in jihad as war. There are numerous traditions from Prophet Muhammad that fighting for the sake of conquest, loot or booty or honor is not rewarded and the only purpose that is considered a right intention is to engage in jihad for the sole purpose of drawing near to God5. Terrorism brings no one closer to God and therefore is not jihad.

A third prerequisite is proportionality. The lesser jihad can only be declared if the good results obtained by war will greatly outweigh the evil of fighting. Muslims jurists agree that fighting is evil and is only justified for exterminating a greater evil. The Qur’an recognizes the great evil of killing but regards oppression as more grievous. "…Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter" (2:191) Terrorism is a greater evil for it allows for the killing of innocents along with the guilty, therefore it’s not jihad.

Another prerequisite is that war can only be fought as a last resort. An enemy must be given some options before a battle: accepting Islam or stopping oppression, surrendering to the Muslim state and paying a tribute6. Terrorists do not give their victims these options and therefore they cannot justify their actions as jihad.

Finally, the last prerequisite is to achieve peace. The only purpose for fighting is to rid a nation or the world of oppression and to establish Islamic ideals of freedom. Terrorism does the opposite and is therefore not jihad.

One very important aspect in the declaration of jihad as war is having the authority to do so. In Islam it is important to have a close relationship between political and religious leadership. The Prophet Muhammad set the example, which was subsequently followed by the first four Caliphs. Most religious scholars agree that an individual cannot declare jihad. It is something that must be weighed seriously in consultation with both religious and governmental leaders. For this reason terrorist organizations cannot declare jihad.

The Prophet Muhammad was given to us as a perfect example of how to conduct all affairs of living including wars. If we examine the history of that time, we will see that all of the wars, in which he engaged, were justified by meeting the criteria mentioned previously. If we want to learn the truth about Islam, it is important to examine the man who was its most perfect representative.

After the first revelations were given to the Prophet, he continued to live in Mecca where he and his companions suffered much oppression from the Quraysh, the pagans of the ruling houses. The oppression was so great that some people sought permission from the Prophet to defend themselves with force, but he did not grant it for 13 years. During that time, his holy mission grew and Islam spread to many places including Medina. A small group from Medina went to Mecca to pay their respects to the Prophet. They made a covenant stating that if the Prophet went to Medina, they would support him. So, he, his companions and many other Muslims migrated and an independent Muslim base was created there. During the first year the Muslims resided in Medina, they were not given permission for defense. But during the second year of their residence, there the scriptures on the lesser jihad were revealed. "Permission (to fight) is given to those upon whom war is made because they have been wronged, and most surely Allah is well able to assist them. (22.39) And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits. (2; 190) The reason for the permission and a promise were also revealed. "Those who have been expelled from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah. And had there not been Allah’s repelling some people by others, certainly there would have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah’s name is much remembered; and surely Allah will help him who helps His cause; most surely Allah is Strong, Mighty. (22:40) Permission was given for defensive purposes for those who are oppressed only because they loved Allah.

All of the wars conducted by the Prophet were just and the laws regarding war, as set forth in the Quran, were followed explicitly. There is no way terrorism can be justified in Islam.


As we have seen, jihad is not holy war nor is it terrorism. Although war is included in the concept of jihad it is considered lesser or minor to the striving for control of ourselves in our endeavor to do the will of Allah. When a people have to resort to war, they must do so within very strict conditions and for the proper reasons. As was stated terrorism is war without rules. Therefore, war, as jihad, cannot be equated with terrorism. Acts of terrorism show a complete lack of regard for correct Muslim behavior as stated in the Quran as revealed to our Prophet by Allah. As these acts can be considered a vile sin, and cannot be attributed to Islam.

1- Allah is the proper name of God in Islamic literature (glossary)

2- Kashfu’l-khafa v:1 p:511

3- Fayz al-Qadir, vol;6, 466; Kashf al-Khafa vol;1 p:424

4- Nesai, Jenaaiz, 46

5- Bukhari, Ilim; 45

6- Tribute is a personal tax levied on non-Muslims in a Muslim State, and as such it resembles the Alms Tax, which is levied on Muslim citizens by the Muslim State. The tax is not collected from the weak and poor, but is collected and used for social services to support those who cannot support themselves. When the dues of the tribute are paid by these people, they have to be supported, protected, granted a freedom of faith, and treated on a footing of justice and equality with Muslims. In practical terms, the extra tax paid by non-Muslims can be viewed as a military exemption tax. Non-Muslim males did not pay an extra tribute, but they also remained on their farms or at businesses when the Muslims went off to war.

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