Understanding Jihad
by Dr. Israr Ahmad


If we were to make a list of all the Islamic terms and concepts that 
have been inadvertently misconstrued or deliberately distorted, by the 
apologetic Muslims or Western orientalists, then Jihad can easily be 
placed at the top of that list. 

Although the significance of Jihad in the Qur'an and Sunnah cannot be 
overstated, its exact place in the overall framework of Islamic values 
and imperatives has been a matter of some debate. Some writers have 
described Jihad as the fifth pillar of Islam, while others have relegated 
it to a mere Fard Kafayah (a collective, rather than personal, duty). A 
highly misleading but popular idea in this respect is that any war in 
which the Muslims are engaged, even if the motives are other than purely 
Islamic, is Jihad fi Sabeel lillah. In view of the confusions and 
misunderstandings that surround this most fundamental of Islamic concepts, 
we are going to discuss here, very briefly, the meaning and import of 
Jihad vis-à-vis the other duties and obligations of a Muslim. 

The word Jihad is not synonymous with "Holy War" which is what the 
Western media wants everyone to believe. After four decades of Cold War, 
the Western powers suddenly found themselves without a legitimate enemy, 
and, consequently, they have designated Islam and the Muslims as the 
most deadly threat to world peace. The image of all Muslims as terrorists 
was inculcated by numerous so-called documentaries, like the infamous 
Jihad in America (PBS). In the face of such widespread media 
stereotypes, it is indeed an uphill task to educate the non-Muslims regarding the 
true meaning of Jihad. Much more important, however, is the task of 
removing the misconception which are prevalent among the Muslims 

The foundation of the edifice of Islam consists in the verbal testimony 
of God's unity and Muhammad's (SAW) prophethood. Built upon this 
foundation are the four pillars of Islam with which all of us are familiar, 
i.e., Salat, Zakat, Saum, and Hajj. Please note, however, that Iman (or 
faith) also has two pillars: an unshakable inner conviction in the 
teachings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and the struggle in the path of 
Almighty Allah (SWT). This has been described in the Qur'an thus: 

They alone are the mo'min who come to believe in Allah and His 
messenger and afterwards never doubted, and who strive in the way of Allah with 
their wealth and their lives. Only they are truthful and sincere. 
(Al-Hujurat 49:15) 

What does this ayah really mean? It means that there is absolutely no 
way, for a person who claims to be a believer, to avoid Jihad fi Sabeel 
lillah and still remain a believer in the sight of Almighty Allah 
(SWT). Indeed, the very definition of a mo'min, as given in Surah 
Al-Hujurat, necessitates that a strong faith and state of inner certitude be 
coupled with an active struggle in the path of Allah (SWT). 

The word Jihad and the verb that goes with it mean to struggle against 
some opposition. Thus, each and every human being is engaged in Jihad, 
in the sense that everyone has to struggle for his existence. However, 
the kind of Jihad we are talking about should be qualified as fi Sabeel 
lillah, that is to say, trying and exerting one's utmost in the path of 
Almighty Allah. It is an earnest and ceaseless activity involving the 
sacrifice of physical and mental resources, wealth, property, and even 
life, only for the sake of attaining the pleasure Almighty Allah (SWT). 

In order to understand the meaning of striving in the path of Allah, we 
should first have a clear concept of the responsibilities of a Muslim. 
According to the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the obligations of a Muslim are 
three-fold: A Muslim is required to become an obedient slave of 
Almighty Allah (SWT), he is required to mold his life, his values, his 
priorities, and his ambitions according to the commands of his Lord. Secondly, 
he must preach and disseminate the ideational and practical guidance of 
Islam to his fellow human beings, to enjoin all that is good and 
prohibit all that is evil. Thirdly, he must try his utmost to establish the 
domination of Islam over all other systems of life, all over the world. 

Even a superficial analysis of these three obligations is enough to 
establish the fact that none of them is easy to fulfill. There are immence 
difficulties to overcome, all sorts of oppositions to put up with, and 
countless problems to solve at each of the three levels. A Muslim must 
put in a great deal of hard labor in fulfilling these obligations, he 
must exercise all his abilities and all his resources if he is to 
fulfill his duties. In other words, he is required to engage in a constant 
Jihad. This struggle or Jihad covers a wide spectrum of religious 
obligations, and its inherent activism can be understood as having nine 
different stages or aspects, as explained below: 

In trying to live a life of total obedience to Almighty Allah (SWT) and 
to follow the example of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), a Muslim must resist 
the following: 

   the sinful impulses and evil inclinations of his own nafs; 
   the temptations implanted by Iblees and his progeny; 
   the ridicule, opposition, and pressures from the un-Islamic society 
in which he happens to live. 

In trying to spread the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and those of 
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to every nook and corner of the world, a Muslim will 
encounter three types of people, and therefore he must develop 
different approaches and levels of scholarship to cater for each of these 

   the educated and intelligent classes; 
   the common people, or the masses at large; 
   the rigid and inflexible adversaries. 

In endeavoring for the establishment of the ascendancy of Islam over 
all other systems of life, members of the Islamic movement will have to 
go through the following stages: 

   Passive Resistance, enduring all verbal and physical persecution 
without retaliation; 
   Active Resistance, challenging the un-Islamic system when there is 
enough strength available to do so; 
   and finally, the Armed Conflict (or a non-violent and disciplined 
popular movement) 

It should be obvious from the above discussion that armed conflict or 
Qitaal constitutes only the last of the nine stages or aspects of Jihad, 
and that these two are not synonymous terms. Thus, we see that Prophet 
Muhammad (SAW) spent the entire twelve years of the Meccan period in 
calling people towards Islam, in organizing and training those who 
responded, and, during all that time, both he and his Companions endured all 
verbal and physical harassment with a non-violent attitude. It was only 
after Hijrah, when a strong center of the Islamic Movement was 
established in Medina, that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) decided that now there was 
enough strength at his disposal to challenge the Quraysh, and only then 
the Islamic movement entered the phases of Active Resistance and Armed 
Conflict. In view of this, all the revivalist and revolutionary Islamic 
groups throughout the Muslim world must keep the following fact in 
mind: While an armed struggle against an un-Islamic political system is 
permissible under certain conditions (whether or not it is feasible in 
today's world is another issue), such a struggle cannot be launched 
without first going through the initial eight stages of Jihad. 

It is vitally important that those who are trying to change the world 
in accordance with the will of Allah (SWT) must first change their own 
lives. It is indeed ironical that the life-style of many of the Muslims 
who are engaged in Islamic activism cannot be described as ideal or 
exemplary. We must keep in mind that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) has described 
the struggle to make one's own self obedient to Almighty Allah (SWT) as 
the "Greater Jihad." We cannot expect to eradicate the evils in our 
society unless we first subjugate our own sinful impulses. Similarly, it 
is also essential that all the available means and resources be utilized 
in calling people towards the light of Islam, in removing their false 
beliefs, and in helping them realize the truth of Prophet Muhammad's 
(SAW) teachings, before initiating the final phases of Jihad. 

What, exactly, is the nature of the relationship between Iman and 
Jihad, or faith and struggle? During the days of early, pristine Islam, we 
find that the two major realities — which formed the focus of attention 
for the Muslims — were Qur'an and Jihad. Qur'an was the source of Iman, 
and Iman manifested itself in Jihad. Primarily, it was the force and 
appeal of the Qur'anic verses that conquered the hearts and souls of the 
Companions (RAA), leading to a profound change in their values, 
priorities, ambitions, and thinking pattern. This inner transformation quite 
naturally led to a sense of dissatisfaction and discontent with what was 
happening in their environment, resulting in the development of 
friction and a lack of harmony between the Muslims and their un-Islamic 
milieu. A genuine inner change necessarily leads to a conflict with the 
status quo. In the case of the Companions (RAA), the inner transformation 
was characterized by Iman, and the resulting conflict took the form of 

Things began to change, however, when Islam entered the era of 
"statehood" and ceased to be a "movement." As a result, the attention of the 
Muslim community gradually started to shift from the moving and inspiring 
verses of the Qur'an to legal and judicial matters, from the inner 
dynamics of Iman to the external manifestation of Islam, and from Jihad in 
the path of Allah (SWT) to warfare for the defense — or expansion —of 
the Muslim territories. The idea that Jihad is a Fard Kafayah was made 
popular by the legalistic mind which equated it with the 
responsibilities of the armed forces. 

How can we bring about an Islamic Renaissance in our own times? It will 
be possible only by following the methodology of Prophet Muhammad 
(SAW). The only surefire and unfailing strategy for Islamic Renaissance, 
therefore, must involve the revitalization of Iman through the Qur'an, and 
the launching of an Islamic movement on the basis of the dynamism thus 
unleashed. We need to establish a strong nucleus of true conviction and 
faith among the educated and rational elements of the Muslim society — 
the brain-trust of the Muslim Ummah — by means of the propagation of 
the Qur'anic wisdom at the highest intellectual level. The light of Iman 
will then illuminate all other segments of the society. This is the 
essential prerequisite for Islamic Renaissance, as it constitutes the only 
methodology to generate the dedicated and committed man-power to 
undertake the Jihad for the establishment of the domination of Islam over all 
other systems of life, all over the world.

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