The Arabic word Jihad comes from the root ‘Jahd’ which means ‘struggle’. This struggle can be of different types. Jihad al – Kabir (the great struggle) refers to struggle for knowledge and education, while Jihad al Akbar (the greatest struggle) is used to refer to the struggle against one’s selfish desires and inclinations.

Jihad al-Asghar (the minor struggle) means fighting back against those who have attacked Muslims and their territories. Here, we will be focusing on this meaning of Jihad, and using the term with this meaning. The best way to understand the concept of Jihad in Islam is to consider ‘Islam’ as a country and ‘Jihad’ as its defence ministry. Can you imagine a country without any ministry of defence?!

The Definition of Jihad

The jurisprudential definition of Jihad is physical and financial struggle for the sake of Islam. This may be:

  • against non-Muslim enemies of Islam who attack Muslims or their territories,

  • or against Muslim groups who are violating (bagheen) the laws of Islam and fighting other Muslim groups or fighting against a just ruler

The defence of Islam and Muslims is an obligation upon all able Muslims. As for pre-emptive military struggle, it is not permissible except in the presence of the infallible Imam or a specific representative of his. As such, it does not apply in our current time.

Jihad in the Qur’an

There are many misconceptions about Jihad that circulate in the media, especially in relation to the Qur’anic teachings on Jihad. This problem has been exacerbated by the false application and misuse of the idea of Jihad by a number of terrorist groups who claim to be Muslim but have very little to do with Islam, and who are driven by political or economic motivations.

We will briefly discuss some of the Qur’anic ayat related to war and peace. The first point to note is that the Qur’an sometimes encourages Muslims to make peace, while at other times prohibits this. This may seem like a paradox. However, there is no contradiction here, because these are different commands for different situations. For example, there are times when Muslims would be making a genuine peace treaty which would benefit all parties. An example of this is in the following passage:

“And prepare against them what force you can and horses tied at the frontier, to frighten thereby the enemy of Allah and your enemy…And if they incline to peace, then incline to it also and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing, and if they intend to deceive you– then surely Allah is sufficient for you…” (8:60-62)

However, in other situations, where an offer of a peace treaty is likely to be a deception or trick, then making peace is prohibited. An example is the following ayah:

“So be not weak and ask not for peace while you are having the upper hand.” [47:35]

In general, the default option in Islam is peace. However, if Muslims’ lands are being invaded or attacked, or significant harm is being posed to Islam or Muslims, then pacifism is forbidden and defence of Islam is obligatory.

Rules of Military Struggle

If warfare is necessary, it is to take place with its rules and regulations. The Qur’anic ayat quoted above (also see 4:89-91) indicate that peace treaties can be made in certain situations and should be upheld. Enemies who surrender are not to be killed. There should be periods of truce, and this is perhaps why it is forbidden to fight during the four holy months. ‘Civilians’ (e.g. women, children, and those who are not engaging in warfare) should not be harmed. In Islam, the ends do not justify the means, and one cannot violate these rules in order to gain a military victory.

Prophet Muhammad (saw) commanded his followers to observe the following rules of military struggle:

  • Do not kill children and women

  • Do not begin fighting without trying dialogue first

  • Do not mutilate bodies

  • Do not deceive in war

  • Do not kill the elderly

  • Do not cut any trees

  • Do not poison (the water or the Earth)

  • He would not attack an enemy at night

  • He forbade assassination/terrorist acts

These teachings are also confirmed by the Ahlul Bayt (as). Imam ‘Ali (as) would make the following supplication before battle:

“O’ God! Save our blood and their blood, produce reconciliation between us and them, and lead them out of their misguidance so that he who is ignorant of the truth may know it, and he who inclines towards rebellion and revolt may turn away from it.”

As is clearly seen, these Islamic teachings forbid many of the types of warfare we see today. Aerial bombing which lead to deaths of civilians, the use of atomic and chemical weapons and the use of weapons of mass destruction are all forbidden in Islam.

False applications of Jihad

Many groups or individuals claim to be practising Jihad, when in fact they are committing murder and grossly violating the laws of Allah (SWT). These include:

  • Groups who accuse other Muslim groups of being disbelievers, and carry out bombings, shootings and other attacks on these Muslims and their mosques.

  • Those who carry out suicide bombings and other attacks on random individuals in Western and other countries.

The groups described above generally do not have Islamic motivations. Instead they tend to have political or economic motivations, and often have the backing of governments who are enemies of true Islam. The individuals who are ignorantly inspired or influenced by these groups are going down a misguided and dangerous path. Their actions are in no way condoned by Islamic or Qur’anic teachings.