Does jihad mean war or fighting?

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What is Jihad? Does it mean war or fighting as it is generally supposed to be?

Islam is the religion chosen by God for humanity’s individual and collective welfare in this world and the next. It is based on belief in and worship of God, without associating with Him any partners, whether in the form of something created, a person, or a concept. True belief and worship requires a deep concern for all animate and inanimate things. The deeper their belief in and submission to God is, the deeper is their concern for all creatures. Belief in God’s Unity prevents humanity from enjoying and exercising absolute freedom in dealing with creatures.

Islam is derived from the Arabic root s-l-m, which means salvation, peace, and submission. In its religious context, it is the expression of God’s Grace flowing in the universe’s arteries, the Divine system to which all creatures—except humanity—have submitted willingly. The universe displays perfect order, for everything therein is Muslim, in the sense that it submits to God’s laws. Even people who reject belief in God or worship that which is not God are Muslims, as far as their bodily existence is concerned. While we journey between being an embryo and a corpse, every bodily tissue and every limb follows the course prescribed for them by God’s law.

The fundamental Islamic principle of Tawhid implies that humanity necessarily must be in harmony with the surrounding world. The vast Muslim universe displays a coherence and harmony of which our world is a part. Although our world is subject to laws special to itself and to the general “laws of nature,” it is also in harmony with other laws governing surrounding phenomena. Human beings, unlike other creatures who tread “the path of nature,” have free will. We bear the gift of freedom and the obligation to harmonize our life with nature. This harmony is also the path of our exaltation and progress, the path upon which God created human nature: Set your face to the religion, a man of pure faith—God’s original nature in which He originated humanity. There is no changing God’s creation. That is the right religion, but most of humanity know it not (30:30).

To harmonize our lives with nature, we first should realize our personal integrity. To do this, we must apply our free will to our energies (e.g., desires, thoughts, and actions) to keep them within the limits established by God. If we do not recognize such limits, we might usurp other’s property, seek illicit sexual relations, and indulge in other sins. If we do not recognize such limits with respect to our intellect, we may use it to deceive others. Our powers must be held in check, our intellect used with wisdom, and our desire and anger restrained by lawful behavior and moderation. In addition, we should remember that we are social beings; if we do not restrain ourselves as God demands, wrongdoing, injustice, exploitation, disorder, and revolution will occur in society.

God does not approve wrongdoing and disorder. Rather, it is His Will that we live in peace and justice. Therefore, those who believe in God and worship Him faithfully are obliged to work for justice in this world. Islam calls this responsibility jihad.

What is meant by “Greater Jihad” and “Lesser Jihad?”

There are two aspects of jihad. One is fighting to overcome carnal desires and evil inclinations; this is called the greater jihad; the other is encouraging others to achieve the same objective and is called the lesser jihad.

The Muslim army was returning to Madina after they had defeated the enemy in a battle, when the Messenger of God said to them; We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater one. When the Companions asked what the “greater jihad” was, he explained that it was fighting with the carnal self.1

The aim of either jihad, the greater or the lesser, is that the believer be purified of sins and so attain true humanity. The prophets were sent for this purpose. God says in the Qur’an:

Thus We have sent unto you a Messenger from among you, who recites unto you Our revelations (and makes Our signs known to you), and who purifies you and instructs you in the Book and in the Wisdom, and also instructs you in what you don’t know. (2:151)

Human beings are in some sense like raw minerals to be worked upon by the Prophets who purify and refine them by removing the seal from their hearts and ears, and by lifting the veils from their eyes. Enlightened by the message of the Prophets, people are enabled to understand the meaning of the laws of nature, which are signs of the existence and Unity of God, and to penetrate into the subtle reality behind things and events. Only through the guidance of the Prophets can mankind attain the high status expected of them by God.

In addition to teaching the signs, the Prophets also instructed men in the Book and in Wisdom. As the Qur’an was the last Revelation to the Last Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, God means the Qur’an when He speaks of the Book, and the Sunna when He speaks of Wisdom. We must therefore follow the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, if we desire to be rightly guided.

The Prophet also teaches us what we do not know and humanity will continue to learn from the Prophet until the Day of Judgment. We learn from him how to purify ourselves of sins. By following his way, many great saints have attained their distinctions as saints. Among them ‘Ali says that his belief in the pillars of Islam is so firm that even if the veil of the Unseen were lifted, his certainty would not increase.2 ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani is said to have had insight into the mysteries of the seventh heaven. These and many others, such as Fudayl bin ‘Iyaz, Ibrahim bin Adham and Bishr al-Khafi might well have been endowed with Prophethood, if God had not already set a seal on Prophethood.

The dark clouds of ignorance have been removed from human intellectual horizon through the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad, and many more advances will be made in science and technology as a result of the light he brought from God.

Jihad is the legacy of the Prophets, and Prophethood is the mission of elevating men to God’s favor by purifying them. Jihad is the name given to this prophetic mission, which has the same meaning as bearing witness to the truth. Just as judges listen to witnesses to settle a case in a court of law, so those who have performed jihad have borne witness to the existence and Unity of God by striving in His way. The Qur’an says: God bears witness that there is no god but He and so do the angels and the people of learning, maintaining justice. There is no god save He, the All-Mighty, the Wise (3.18). Those who have performed jihad will also bear witness to the same truth in the heavenly court where the case of unbelievers will be settled.

Those who bear witness to the existence and Unity of God should travel far and wide into the remotest parts of the world and preach this truth. This was the duty of the Prophets as stated in the Qur’an, and it should be our duty as well:

...Messengers who brought good news to mankind and who admonished them, so that they might have no argument against God after their coming. God is the All-Mighty and the All-Wise. God Himself bears witness by what He has revealed to you that it has been revealed with His knowledge; and so do the angels. There is no better witness than God. (4.165–6)

There has been no people to whom God did not send a Prophet, so that every people has some notion of Prophethood. As the term used to describe the activity of Prophethood, jihad is deeply engraved on the heart of every believer so that he or she feels a profound responsibility for preaching the truth in order to guide others to the Straight Path.

The lesser jihad, which has usually been taken to mean fighting for God’s cause, does not refer only to the form of striving done on battlefields. The term is comprehensive. It includes every action done for God’s sake. Whether speaking or keeping silent, smiling or making a sour face, joining a meeting or leaving it, every action taken to ameliorate the lot of humanity, whether by individuals or communities, is included in the meaning of the lesser jihad.

While the lesser jihad depends on the mobilization of all the material facilities and is performed in the outer world, the greater jihad means a person’s fighting against his or her carnal soul. These two forms of jihad cannot be separated from each other.

The Messenger of God has taught us how to perform both forms of the jihad. He has established the principles of preaching the truth, which have application until the Day of Judgment. When we scrutinize the way he acted, we shall see that he was very systematic. This is actually another proof of his Prophethood and a wonderful example of following the way of God in behavior.

The believers kept their belief vigorous and active by means of jihad. Just as a tree keeps its leaves as long as it yields fruits so a believer can preserve vigor as long as he performs jihad. Whenever you encounter a hopeless pessimist you soon realize that he or she is one who has abandoned jihad. Such people have been deprived of the spirit, and are sunk in pessimism because they have abandoned preaching the truth. Whoever performs jihad unceasingly never loses his or her enthusiasm and always tries to increase the scope of his or her activities. Every good deed results in a new one, so that believers never become deprived of a good: As for those who strive for us We surely guide them to our path. God is with the good (29.69).

There are as many paths leading to the Straight Path as the number of breaths drawn in the creation, mankind included. Whoever strives for His cause, God guides him to one of these paths and saves him or her from going astray. Whoever is guided to His Straight Path by God lives a balanced life, exceeding the limits neither in his or her human needs and activities nor in his/her worship and other religious observances. Such balance is the sign of “true guidance.”

However great the sacrifices made in fighting with the oppressive unbelievers, they nevertheless all constitute the lesser jihad. It is striving to discharge religious obligations as perfectly as possible. As for the greater jihad, it is really much more difficult to accomplish since it requires us to fight against all our own destructive drives and impulses such as arrogance, vindictiveness, jealousy, selfishness, self-conceit, and the carnal desires.

Although the person who abandons the lesser jihad is liable to spiritual deterioration, he or she may recover. Everything in the universe praises and glorifies God with its every breath and is, accordingly, a sign of the existence and Unity of God: a person may be guided to the Straight Path through one of these signs. For this reason, it is said that there are as many paths leading to the Straight Path of God as the breaths of all His creatures. A person returning from the lesser jihad is vulnerable to worldly weaknesses. Pride, love of comfort and ease may captivate that person. These are some of the perils awaiting one who has returned from the lesser jihad. It is for this reason that the Prophet warned us through his Companions: returning to Madina after a victory, he said: We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater.

The Companions of the Prophet, upon him be peace, were fearless on the battlefields on the one hand, and as sincere and humble as dervishes in worshipping God on the other. Those victorious warriors used to spend most of their nights in prayer to God. Once, when night fell during battle, two of them had to take turns in standing guard. One took his rest while the other began to pray to God. Having become aware of the situation, the enemy shot a shower of arrows at him. He was hit and bled profusely but did not abandon his prayer. When he finished his devotions, he woke his friend, who asked him in amazement why he had not woken him sooner. His reply was: “I was reciting the sura al-Kahf, so I did not wish the deep pleasure I found in this prayer to be interrupted.”3

The Companions went into a trance-like state of ecstasy when in prayer, and would recite the Qur’an as if it were being revealed directly to them, so they did not even feel the pain caused by arrows which penetrated their bodies. Jihad, in its lesser and greater aspects, found complete expression in them.

The Prophet, upon him be peace, combined these two aspects of jihad in the most perfect way in his own person. He displayed monumental courage on the battlefields. ‘Ali, who was one of the most courageous figures of Islam, confesses that the Companions took shelter behind the Prophet, upon him be peace, at the most critical moments of the fighting. To give an example, when the Muslim army experienced a reverse and began to scatter in the first phase of the Battle of Hunayn, he urged his horse towards the enemy lines and shouted to call back his soldiers who were retreating: I am a Prophet, I do not lie; I am the grandson of ‘Abd al Muttalib, I do not lie.4

1. Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa’, 1, 424.

2. Imam Rabbani, Ahmad Faruq al-Sarhandi, Maktubat, 1, 157).

3. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 3. 344; 359.

4. Bukhari, “Jihad,” 52, 61, 67.

Does jihad have any stages? Does it allow resorting to force?

The first Revelation to God’s Messenger was the command: Read! This command, coming at a time when there was nothing readily available to read, meant that believers should use their intellectual and spiritual faculties to discern God’s acts in the universe and His laws related to its creation and operation. Through such discernment, believers seek to purify themselves and their minds of all ignorance-based superstitions and to acquire true knowledge through observation and contemplation.

Human beings are not composed only of their minds. God has endowed us with many faculties, each of which needs satisfaction. So while feeding our minds with the Divine “signs” in the universe, we seek to cleanse our hearts of sin. We live a balanced life in awareness of Divine supervision, and continuously seek His forgiveness. In this way, we eventually conquer our desire for forbidden things and, through prayer, ask God to enable us to do good deeds.

Thus, read! signifies action. For God’s Messenger, who already was absolutely pure in spirit and devoid of superstition, it meant that it was time to start his mission as a Messenger of God. He was to recite the Revelation in public and instruct people about His signs. By doing this, he would purify their minds of superstitions carried over from the Age of Ignorance, and their hearts of sin. He would enlighten them, intellectually and spiritually, by instructing them in the “Revealed Book of God” (the Qur’an) and His “Created Book” (the universe): We have sent among you, of yourselves, a Messenger who recites Our signs to you, purifies you, and instructs you in the Book and in the Wisdom, and also instructs you in what you don’t know (2:151).

After he received this first revelation, God’s Messenger returned home in great agitation. He was sleeping wrapped in a cloak, “enwrapped” by his people’s suffering and this heavy responsibility, when God commanded him: O enwrapped one, keep vigil the night long, save a little (a half of it, or diminish or add a little), and chant the Qur’an in measure, for We shall charge you with a weighty word (73:1-5).

The short period between the first revelation and the spreading of the Message, a period marked by such verses as those mentioned above, was a preliminary stage for God’s Messenger. He had to prepare himself to convey the Qur’an by keeping long night vigils and reciting the Qur’an in measure. As is known, night vigils are times when impression is more keen and recitation more penetrating.

In addition to conveying the Message, jihad, as discussed above, entails the believers’ struggles with their carnal selves to build a genuine spiritual character, one overflowing with belief and inflamed with love. These two dimensions of jihad continue until the believer dies (the individual sphere) and until the Last Day (the collective sphere). Therefore, soon after this verse was revealed, God’s Messenger received the following revelation: O enshrouded one, arise and warn! Magnify your Lord, purify your robes, and flee defilement! Do not show favor, seeking worldly gain! For the sake of your Lord, be patient! (74:1-7).

These revelations ordered the Prophet to begin preaching Islam. He started with his family members and nearest relatives and, after Warn your tribe of nearest kindred (26:214) was revealed, spread this call throughout his tribe. His subsequent public preaching was met with derision, threats, torture, enticing bribes if he would stop, and boycott.

In Makka, God’s Messenger never resorted to or allowed retaliation. Islam came not to spread trouble or cause dissention, but, in the words of Amir ibn Rabi‘, to bring people out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of belief, to free them from serving that which is not God so that they can serve the One True God, and to elevate them from the pits of the Earth to the heights of Heaven.5

As Islam literally means peace, salvation, and submission, it obviously came to establish peace. This is established first in our inner worlds, so that we are at peace with God and natural environment, and then throughout the world and the universe. Peace and order are fundamental in Islam, for it seeks to spread in a peaceful personal and collective atmosphere. It refrains from resorting to force as much as possible, never approves of injustice, and forbids bloodshed: Whoever kills someone, other than in retaliation for murder or corruption on the Earth, in effect has killed humanity; whoever saves a life in effect has saved humanity (5:32).

Coming to eradicate injustice and corruption, and to “unite” the Earth with the Heavens in peace and harmony, Islam calls people with wisdom and fair exhortation. It does not resort to force until the defenders of their corrupt order rooted in injustice, oppression, self-interest, exploitation, and usurpation of others’ rights seek to prevent its preaching in peaceful ways and suppress it. Thus, force is allowed in the following cases:

• If unbelievers, polytheists, or those who cause trouble and corruption actively resist the preaching of Islam and prevent others from listening to its message. As Islam is a Divine religion seeking to secure human well-being and happiness in both worlds, it has the right to present itself. If this is not allowed, theoretically, its opponents are given three alternatives: accept Islam, or allow its preaching in peaceful ways, or admit its rule. If they reject these alternatives, force is allowed.

However, with respect to using force there is an important point to mention. In order to use force, there must be an Islamic state. It was allowed only after the Prophet emigrated to Madina and established an independent state, for the Muslims had been wronged (22:39). The verses revealed to give this permission explain the Islamic view of just war:

(Fighting is) permitted to those who are fought against, because they have been wronged. God is able to give them victory. Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: “Our Lord is God.” For had it not been for God’s repelling some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the Name of God is much mentioned, would have been pulled down. God helps one who helps Him [His religion]. God is All-Strong, All-Mighty. Those who, if We give them power in the land, establish worship and pay zakat and enjoin the good and forbid the evil. And God’s is the sequel of events. (22:39-41)

It is clear from these verses, and from history, that Islam resorts to force only to defend itself and establish freedom of belief and thought. Under Muslim rule, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and adherents of other religions are free to practice their religion. Even many Western historians and writers have agreed that Christians and Jews experienced the most prosperous and happiest period of their history under Muslim rule.

• Islam, being the true religion revealed by God, never approves of injustice. As declared in Surely We have written (decreed) in the Psalms after the Torah (and remind once more in the Qur’an) that My righteous servants will inherit the earth. (21:105), God’s righteous servants must submit the Earth to God’s rule, which depends on absolute justice and worship of the One God. They also are obliged to strive until persecution, as well as any worship of and obedience to false deities and unjust tyrants, is ended. Thus Muslims are to fight for the feeble and oppressed: How should you not fight for the cause of God and of the feeble and oppressed men and women and children, who cry: “Our Lord! Bring us out of this town whose people are oppressors! Give us from Your presence some protecting friend! Give us from Your presence some defender!” (4:75).

5. The Muslim envoy to the Persian commander during the War of Qadisiya. This took place in 637 CE, during the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab.

Are there any rules in doing jihad? If there are, what are they?

As believers cannot transgress God’s limits, they must observe His rules related to fighting. Some are deduced direct from the Qur’an and the Sunna (practice of Prophet Muhammad) and are as follows:

• A believer is one from whom God has bought his or her life and wealth in exchange for Paradise (9:111). They are dedicated solely to His cause and seek only His good pleasure. Therefore, whoever fights for other causes (e.g., fame, wealth, racial or ideological considerations) is excluded from God’s good pleasure.

• Fight in the way of God against those who fight you, but do not transgress. God does not love transgressors (2:190). Believers are told not to fight neutral parties, and to reject unscrupulous methods or indiscriminate killing and pillage, which characterize all wars waged by non-Muslims. The excesses alluded to consist of, but are not limited to, fighting women and children, the old and the injured, mutilating enemy corpses, destroying fields and livestock, and other acts of injustice and brutality. Force is to be used by Muslims only when unavoidable, and only to the extent absolutely necessary.

• When fighting cannot be avoided, the Qur’an tells believers not to avoid it. Rather, they must prepare themselves, both morally and spiritually, and take precautions. These are:

• Strive for that spiritual stage when 20 Muslims can overcome 200 of the enemy: O Prophet! Exhort the believers to fight. Twenty steadfast men shall overcome 200; 100 hundred steadfast men shall overcome 1,000 unbelievers, because unbelievers have no understanding or sound judgment (8:65), and when those who will meet their Lord exclaim: How often a small company has overcome a mighty host by God’s leave! God is with the steadfast (2:249).

• To attain such a rank, Muslims must have an unshakable belief and trust in God and avoid all sins as much as possible. Belief and piety or righteousness are two unbreakable weapons, two sources of inexhaustible power: Don’t faint or grieve, for you shall gain the upper hand if you are true believers (3:139), and The sequel is for the righteous people (7:128).

• In addition to moral strength, believers must equip themselves with the latest weaponry. Force is vital to obtaining the desired result, so believers cannot ignore it. Rather, they must be further advanced in science and technology than unbelievers so that the latter cannot use their superiority for their own selfish benefit. As Islam states that “right is might,” believers must be able to prevent unbelievers and oppressors from showing that “might makes right”: Make ready for them all you can of armed force and tethered horses, that thereby you may dismay the enemy of God and your enemy, and others beside them whom you don’t know; God knows them. Whatever you spend in the way of God will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged (8:60).

An Islamic state should be powerful enough to deter the attacks of unbelievers and oppressors, as well as their plans to subject weaker people. It should be able to secure peace and justice, and to prevent any other power from causing trouble or corruption. This will be possible when Muslims equip themselves with strong belief and righteousness, and with scientific knowledge and the latest technology. They must combine science and technology with faith and good morals, and then use this force for the good of humanity. Belief in God calls for serving people. Greater belief means a greater concern for the created’s welfare. When Muslims attain this rank, God will not allow unbelievers to defeat believers (4:141). Otherwise, what the Prophet predicted will happen: “(The forces of unbelief) will unite to make a concerted attack upon you. They will snatch the morsel out of your mouths and pillage your table.”6

• When fighting is necessary, Muslims must report for duty, for:

O you who believe! What ails you that when you are told: “Go forth in the way of God,” you sink down heavily to the ground? Are you so content with the life of the world, rather than the world to come? Yet the enjoyment of the life of the world, compared with the world to come, is a little thing. If you don’t go forth, He will afflict you with a painful doom. He will replace you with another people; and you will not hurt Him. God is powerful over everything. (9:38-39)

God loves those who battle for His cause in ranks, as if they were a solid structure. (61:4)

O you who believe! Shall I show you something that will save you from a painful doom? You should believe in God and His Messenger, and strive for the cause of God with your wealth and your lives. That is better for you, if you only knew. He will forgive your sins and admit you into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, and to dwelling places goodly in Gardens of Eden. That is the mighty triumph; and other things you love, help from God, and a nigh victory. Give good tidings to believers. (61:10–3)

• A community is structured and functions like a body, for it demands a “head” having “intellect.” Therefore, obedience to the head is vital for communal prosperity. When God’s Messenger was raised in Arabia, people resembled a broken rosary’s scattered beads and were unaware of the need for obedience and the benefits of collective life. God’s Messenger inculcated in them the feeling of obedience to God, His Messenger, and their superiors, and used Islam as an unbreakable rope to unite them:

O you who believe! Obey God, the Messenger, and those of you who are in authority. If you have a dispute concerning anything, refer it to God and the Messenger if you believe in God and the Last Day. That is better and more seemly in the end. (4:59)

O you who believe! When you meet an army, hold firm and remember and mention God much, so that you may be successful. Obey God and His Messenger, and don’t dispute with each other lest you falter and your strength departs ??). Be steadfast, and God is with the steadfast. (8:45–6)

The Companions’ resulting consciousness of obedience made many previously impossible things possible. For example, when he appointed the 18-year-old son of his emancipated (black) slave as commander of an army containing many elders, among them Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, no Companion objected.7 In another case, during a military expedition the commander ordered his soldiers to throw themselves into a fire. Even though this was not an Islamic order, some tried to obey it. However, others prevented them from committing suicide and persuaded them to ask God’s Messenger whether they had to obey such un-Islamic orders.8 Although it is unlawful to obey sinful orders, obedience to law is vitally important to a community's collective life, particularly if it wants to win a war.

• Believers must remain steadfast and are forbidden to flee the battlefield: O you who believe! When you meet unbelievers in battle, don’t turn your backs to them. Whoever does so on that day, unless maneuvering for battle or intending to join a company, has incurred God’s wrath, and his habitation will be Hell—an evil homecoming! (8:15-16)

Fleeing the battlefield is one of the seven major sins, for it causes disorder in the ranks and demoralizes the others. Their belief in God and the Hereafter cannot be firm, for their actions show they prefer this life to the Hereafter. Believers may leave the battlefield only to maneuver, as a tactic, or to join another company.

In the Battle of Yarmuk (636 CE), 20,000 valiant Muslims fought—and defeated—200,000 Byzantines.9 Qabbas ibn Ashyam, one of the heroes, only realized that he had lost a leg (around noon) when he dismounted from his horse hours later. His grandson later introduced himself to Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, saying: “O Caliph, I am the grandson of the one who lost his leg at noon but became aware of it only toward evening.”

During the Battle of Mu’ta (629 CE), the Muslim army consisted of 3,000 soldiers; the opposing Byzantine forces had about 100,000 soldiers. The Muslims fought heroically, and both armies retreated at the same time. Despite this, the Muslims thought that they had fled the battlefield and so were ashamed to meet God’s Messenger. However, he welcomed and consoled them: “You didn’t flee; you retreated to join me. You will collect strength and fight with them again.”10 It happened just as he said, for just before his death the Muslim army raided southern Syria; 2 years later, the Muslims dealt the Byzantines a deadly blow at Yarmuk.

6. Abu Dawud, “Malahim,” 5; I. Hanbal, 5.278.

7. Muslim, “Fada’il al-Sahaba,” 63; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya, 6.336.

8. Muslim, “‘Imara,” 39; I. Ma’ja, “Jihad,” 40.

9. This battle took place in 636 CE, during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. (Tr.)

10. Abu Dawud, “Jihad,” 96; Tirmidhi, “Jihad,” 36; I. Hanbal, 2.70, 86.


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