Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

What is Jihad?

by John Heit

If you read the newspaper on any given day, you will likely come across the term jihad. In the wake of September 11th, scores of books, TV shows, radio programs, and newspapers are quick to use "jihad" without any substantive discussion of its meaning or context. The weight and meaning of jihad is left to fester in the darker corners of our imaginations. It troubles me that something as complicated as jihad is almost recklessly tossed about the public discourse. Instead of leaving jihad ambiguous, I ask: What does it mean? What is jihad?

Jihad is the Arabic word for "struggle" or "effort". In the context of the Holy Qur'an, jihad is a struggle or effort to strive "in the path of God" (22:78). Scholar James Turner Johnson says it this way: "the concept of jihad…fundamentally denotes striving or effort expended by the individual Muslim to walk in the path of God" (Johnson 19; Feldman 232-233). Jihad is the effort to purify oneself from within, to purify oneself of selfish appetites--the intention behind the action is important to the action itself. If this is the root meaning of jihad, when and how did it come to mean "holy war" or a "war to kill the infidels"? To answer that, we need to look at jihad in the Qur'an and the term's historical development.

According to one tradition of the hadith (the sayings and life of the Prophet Muhammad), "Muhammad tells his followers returning from battle that they have now returned from the 'lesser jihad' (battle) and must turn to the 'greater jihad' (inner struggle for true submission to God)" (Johnson 35; Feldman 232)). This is the first differentiation of the "lesser jihad", the physical holy war, and the "greater jihad", the inner struggle to submit to God. The greater jihad is further divided into three types of struggle:

1) Jihad of the Heart ( the struggle for moral reformation and faith)

2) Jihad of the Tongue (the struggle to proclaim God's word abroad; right speech)

3) Jihad of the Hand (doing good works in accord with the will of God)

With this basic foundation of jihad, we can take a closer look at the Holy Qur'an.

Jihad in the Qur'an

Jihad and its derivatives meaning struggle in the path of God appear 36 times in the Qur'an. Each of those 36 times, jihad is used in the context of struggling to submit to God (the greater jihad) (Johnson 61). There is another word that appears in the Qur'an when reference is made to physical confrontation or fighting. This term, qital, more directly means "fighting" or "killing" (Kelsay 47). Some of the most prominently cited examples of qital are verses 2:190, 9:13, and 4:91-93 of the Qur'an.

Qur'an: 2:190--"Fight [qatilu] in the way of God against those who fight you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage…Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God's religion reigns supreme. But if they desist, fight none except the evil-doers."

Qur'an 9:13--"Will ye not fight a folk who broke their solemn pledges, and proposed to drive out the Messenger and did attack you first?"

Qur'an 4:91-93--"If they withdraw not from you, and offer you not peace, and refrain not their hand, take them, and slay them wherever you come to them; against them We have given you a clear authority."

It is important to note that in each of these examples, qital is referenced in a defensive manner. There are citations used to justify offensive fighting such as:

Qur'an 8:39-40--Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God's religion shall reign supreme. If they desist, God is cognizant of all their actions; but if they give no heed, know then that God will protect you.

Qur'an 9:29--Fight those who do not believe in God or the last day, and do not hold forbidden that which was forbidden by God and His Apostle, or acknowledge the religion of truth (even if they are) of the people of the book, until they pay jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

Johnson makes another important note regarding these passages: "the point here is reducing the unbelievers to submission to Islamic order--the conception which in Western thought is rendered as the right to correct wrongdoing" (Johnson 62).

Jihad Outside the Qur'an

Even though jihad and qital are different words with different meanings, they were associated in early Islamic thought. However, the idea of jihad "as a war to increase the sphere of Islam" is a product of later, classical jurists (Sachedina 106; Johnson 36). "Like Clausewitz's concept of war as politics carried on by other means, the classical idea of jihad as war was the struggle to establish and spread Islamic faith and law by means other than self-discipline, persuasion, and example" (Johnson 61).

Jihad as a holy war occurs within the context of dar al-islam (the sphere of Islam) and dar al-harb (sphere of war). In the dar al-islam the reign of Islam is supreme; Islamic law is applied and there is peace and submission to God. The dar al-harb is everywhere else, the realm in which Islam is not the law of the land. It is a place of disorder, confusion, and is inherently in opposition to the dar al-islam.

"Thus, the conflict between the two is not in the first place the result of actual acts of war by dar al-harb against Islam (though in practice such acts may take place) but rather that hostility was thematic and systematic, rooted in the disorder of the dar al-harb and the universal mission of Islam to bring the entire world into the dar al-islam" (Johnson 51-52).

The concept of dar al-islam and dar al-harb was also the product of classical Islamist thinking (Johnson, Kelsay).

When jihad as holy war occurs, it is:

1) Within the context of dar al-islam versus dar al-harb

2) Is the collective duty of the community with specific categories of who should fight and who should perform other duties

3) Before the battle begins, the da'wah (the summons to become Muslim) must be issued

4) Once the fighting does begin, it must be carried out according to strict rules and limits.

Jihad of the Sword may be directed at: disorder and strife imposed by unbelief in the world; at strife within the community, at other Muslims (apostasy, heresy, rebellion); outside communities that pose a threat to Islam (Johnson). Another important note: not all occasions of war of the Muslim community are properly jihad--they may well lack the religiously defined character, purpose, or authorization (Johnson).

Given the complexity of jihad, I'm not surprised at the lack of examination or critical analysis among the public. However, the difficulty of the subject does not negate the need for a better understanding of this important idea. Even in the face of "too little preliminary work on a vast subject" (Kelsay 57), we must exercise critical thought when we encounter the daily uses of jihad to try to determine what is actually being conveyed. I encourage the reader to take this (albeit very limited) understanding of jihad, its meaning and history, and engage in public discourse. The use of knowledge to generate discussion will hopefully yield and foster a greater appreciation for the nuanced nature of jihad.


Donner, Fred M. "The Sources of Islamic Conceptions of War". Chapter in Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions. John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson Eds. Greenwood Press: New York, 1991.

Feldman, Noah. After Jihad: American and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2003.

Johnson, James Turner. The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. Pennsylvania University Press: Pennsylvania, 2002.

Other Authors to Note:

Tamara Sonn

Emmanuel Sivan

Robin Wright


John Heit was an SCU senior and Hackworth Fellow in 2004-05. Posted June 2005.

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