The concept of jihad is one of the most misconstrued aspects of Islamic doctrine in the world today. Not only by Western society and its media, but also by some pseudo-Muslim radical elements who have popularized it to mean holy war.
As a result, Islam is erroneously and unjustly labeled as a religion that advocates violence and terrorism.
But, even in the Arabic language, the word “jihad” means “struggle” or “effort,” not “holy war,” which translated into Arabic is “harbun muqaddasatu.” So, within the context of Islam, the correct definition of jihad is the struggle or effort to strive “in the path of God” against all obstacles. It is the effort to purify the soul by restraining from committing sins that corrupt the soul. One is to control material desires, overt selfishness, and remain uninfluenced by those internal or external forces that distract one from the remembrance of God. Jihad further constitutes the obligation for Muslims to strive against all forms of oppression, and to, peacefully and compassionately, convey the true message of Islam to all of mankind.
Categories of Jihad
1. Jihad-e-Akbar: Jihad of the Highest Order
a. Jihad an-Nafs or Struggle against the Nafs or Soul
This is the jihad of self-reformation, and the struggle is against human vices, such as greed and lust, and all worldly enticements that are contrary to Islamic principles. This jihad reflects the journey of an individual from an ‘animalistic’ state of existence, which is living for immediate gratification or gain, to one where the psyche is disciplined enough to exercise moral control. The Muslim is expected to strive hard to learn correct Islamic instruction and to put those teachings into effect every day. Jihad an-Nafs calls for compelling oneself to observe obligatory and voluntary duties, and abandon all things that are haram (forbidden) or makrooh (disliked) as mandated in the Qur’an. It also includes compelling oneself to conduct all of one’s affairs with excellent disposition and the highest level of ethics.
According to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “The most excellent type of jihad is to practice jihad against your own self and own desires for the sake of Allah.” [At-Tirmidhi]
All forms of worship in Islam, such as prayers, fasting and charity, exist as means of purifying and perfecting the soul – this is the essence of mankind, and the element that will outlast this life and be judged in the next. It is only in the upward development of the soul that mankind will find happiness in this life and in the hereafter. The Qur’an states:
“And by the soul and Him Who perfected it, then showed it what is right and what is wrong for it—indeed, he succeeds who purifies his soul, and, indeed, he fails who corrupts his soul.” [Qur’an 91:7]
b. Jihad ash-Shaytaan or Struggle against Shaytaan (Satan)
This is the struggle against Satan, and it involves defending oneself from his evil whisperings, temptations and lustfulness. One should understand that Satan’s promptings will never cease, as a result, this is a struggle to last throughout one’s life. The Qur’an states:
“Verily Satan is an enemy to you: so treat him as an enemy. He only invites his adherents,that they may become Companions of the Blazing Fire.” [Qur’an 35:6]
2. Jihad-e-Kabir: Major Jihad
a. Verbal Jihad
This is the jihad that calls for the propagation of the true and unadulterated message of the Qur’an. Muslims are required to become involved in da’wah (spreading the message of Islam), and to do so with patience, wisdom, tolerance and respect of others and their own beliefs. Propagating the true message of Islam is not only to enlighten non-Muslims, but also to correct mistaken beliefs among Muslims. However, the goal and intention of da’wah to non-Muslims is simply to convey the message of Islam – it is not to have or make them convert to Islam. Muslims are prohibited from using any form of coercion or force in this endeavor. The Qur’an states:
“Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.” [Qur’an 2:256]
b. Jihad ahlu ath-Thulm or Struggle Against Evil, Injustice and Innovations
This is the struggle against evil (al-Munkaraat), injustice (ath-Thulm) and those who corrupt Islam with heretic ideas or innovation (al-Bida’ah). It calls for Muslims to speak up against evil-doing, oppression and tyranny, and to help safeguard the well-being of all people regardless of race, gender, nationality or religion. Furthermore, this jihad calls for removing treacherous people from power and replacing them with those who will be just and equitable. In addition, those who devote their time, talent, wealth or knowledge to the cause of righteousness are also said to be practicing Verbal Jihad.
c. Jihad al-Kuffar or Struggle against Disbeliever’s and Hypocrites
This is the struggle against disbelievers (kuffar) and al-Munafiqeen (hypocrites). It is accomplished at four levels: with the heart, the tongue, one’s wealth and one’s soul. This jihad is usually practiced with the tongue by verbally refuting misguided ways and conveying the true message of Islam. According to the Prophet (peace be upon him):
“Perform Jihad against the disbelievers with your wealth, with yourself and with your tongues.” [Abu Dawud]
“He amongst you who witnesses an evil, let him change (remove, stop) it with his hand. If unable, then with his tongue, and if unable, then with his heart, and this indeed is the weakest Iman.” [Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri, Muslim]
And the Qur’an states:
“But strive hard against them (the Kuffar), (by preaching) with the utmost endeavor, with it (ie. the Qur’an)” [Qur’an 25:52]
“O Prophet! Strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, – an evil refuge (indeed).” [Qur’an 66:9]
“Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of Satan.” [Qur’an 4:76]
3. Jihad-e-Asghar : Jihad of the Lower Order.
Military or Combat Jihad
This is the jihad of defensive battle and represents the most misinterpreted category of jihad by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is used by some pseudo-Muslim radical elements and anti-Islamists to contend that Islam promotes and rewards offensive warfare. But the correct interpretation is that this jihad represents the legitimate struggle to defend human rights, families, personal and religious freedoms, land and property. Islam forbids Muslims to be initiators or aggressors, but it permits them to defend themselves when necessary. Hence, the battle can only be defensive, and not an offensive action. The Qur’an issues this decree as follows:
“Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” [Qur’an 2:190]
In Islam, the purpose of any battle is to restore peace and not to promote violence. When engaging in battle, Islam commands Muslims to be fair and just; not to harm or kill women, children, the elderly and unarmed civilians; not to terrify civilians; and not to employ unnecessary excessive force. The Qur’an has provided the circumstances under which defensive warfare is permissible; and Muslims are strictly forbidden from transgressing these parameters.