Does Jihad Mean Holy War?

April 13, 2022

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Does Jihad Mean Holy War?

By Missionary Humayon Jahangeer Khan

No Terrorism in Islam

‘Jihad’. You’ve all heard the word. Most often, it’s not in a positive context. The media readily reports the heinous actions that so-called Muslims commit, in the name of Islam. And with it, in attempt to propagate slander against Islam, they promote the view espoused by the terrorists themselves, that Islam itself, through its teaching of Jihad, justifies atrocities against innocent people. Given this,  it’s more important than ever to look at what this word ‘Jihad’ really means.

Jihad is an Arabic word that can be translated as “struggle”, “ability to strive”, or the exertion of one’s maximum effort to repel the enemy by word or deed. The Arabic word Jihad is derived from the verb Jahada – meaning to strive or struggle. In Islamic terminology it means to make an effort, to endeavour and to strive for a noble cause. The word is generally used to describe any type of striving in the cause of Allah. Given its many meanings, it is important to categorise different forms of Jihad. Fortunately, this is precisely what the Prophet of Islam already did for us. When returning from a battle, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) told his followers that they were returning from the lesser Jihad to the greater Jihad (Bayhaqi). What are these two types of Jihad and what did he mean? 

Let’s find out.

The Greater Jihad – Subduing the Ego

The term the “Great Jihad” was not coined by the Prophet of Islam, but by God Himself in the Quran. God commands Muslims: 

“So obey not the disbelievers and fight against them by means of it (the Quran) a great fight.”

Holy Quran 25:53

Some may, on reading this verse, imagine that this verse is a commandment to fight non-Muslims. However, this would be incorrect. This verse was revealed while the Prophet of Islam was under heavy persecution in Mecca, prior to his migration to Medina. The verse was taken and explained to refer to the main “struggle” – the struggle against disbelief, with the Quran. This takes two forms: firstly, following the Quran oneself and becoming purified through it; secondly, preaching the word of the Quran to those of other faiths and none. Both of these acts require a struggle against one’s own ego, and thus the “Greater Jihad” is also known as “Jihad against the Self”, i.e.: a struggle to subdue one’s own ego, and overcome its evil inclinations and tendencies. It is a spiritual striving to attain nearness to God and is a lifelong conscious struggle incumbent on every Muslim.

The holy quran

As regards preaching the Quran to non-Muslims, the Quran is categorically clear: Muslims are commanded to spread this message with wisdom, tolerance and respect of others and their beliefs:

“Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation…”

Holy Quran 16:126

“And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.”

Holy Quran 6:109

Further, the Quran prohibits the use of any coercion or force in spreading its message: 

“And if your Lord had enforced His will, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Will you, then, force men to become believers?”

Holy Quran 10:100

“There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.”

Holy Quran 2:257

According to the Quran anyone who devotes his time, effort, wealth or knowledge to the cause of righteousness is practicing the Greater Jihad. This is obligatory on all Muslims.

This is what the Prophet of Islam meant as he returned from a battle, telling his companions that they were returning to the “Greater Jihad”. Note the context: they had just left the battlefield, during which their lives were in mortal danger, yet here he was informing that the greater struggle lay ahead of them, not behind them. 

This is the greatest struggle for every Muslim. Struggling against your soul allows a Muslim to reach the pinnacle of his or her faith. 

The Lesser Jihad – Fighting in Self-Defence

Islam does not permit any Muslim to pick up weapons to spread the religion of Islam, under any circumstances. This is all the more heinous when living under such a government that ensures complete religious freedom. 

If the lesser Jihad does not consist of fighting to convert others, as many wrongly think, what is it? The “lesser jihad” is fighting in self-defence against an enemy that has initiated an attack, for the main purpose of destroying one’s faith or forcibly converting a person to a different faith. That last bit is important, as it explains the key difference between a war that is a “jihad” and a political war. But certain conditions must be met before “Jihad” of this lesser type can be declared as legitimate. 

Let’s take a look at what they are.

The Conditions for Jihad

In this section, we will use the term “Jihad” to refer exclusively to the “lesser” form. 

This “Lesser Jihad” is the Jihad of a defensive battle. The Quran has clearly restricted this type of Jihad to certain conditions, while forbidding unnecessary bloodshed of any sort:

“And fight in the cause of Allah against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Surely Allah loves not the transgressors.”

Holy Quran 2:191

The conditions of this Jihad are based on what the Prophet Muhammad (sa) went through during his own life. To understand it therefore, we have to understand a little bit of history. 

The Holy Prophet’s (sa) entire life was devoted to Jihad. Of this a mere four months (approximately) was spent by way of defensive battles and in them the cause and objective are beyond dispute, as we shall see.

Muslims Faced Brutal Persecution

He spent the first thirteen years of prophethood in Mecca, striving to spread the message of the Quran against intense and fierce oppression, but never raising a finger in response. There were many times where the disbelieving Meccans would persecute both the Holy Prophet (sa) and his companions. Companions were mercilessly martyred, and their blood shed on the streets of Mecca, but there was no sign of retaliation from the Muslims, or any reaction to these brutal attacks. After these thirteen years, the Muslims migrated to Medina, seeking religious freedom. However, the Meccans followed the Muslims there and continued their enmity. Indeed, despite migrating away from Mecca for Medina , the Meccans continued to pursue him in his new home. In fact, they even sent letters threatening the Medinites with death if they did not turn the Prophet over to them. One such letter read as follows: 

“Abdur Rahman ibn Ka’b ibn Malik reported on the authority of a man from among the companions of the Prophet (sa): The infidels of the Quraysh wrote (a letter) to Ibn Ubayy and to those who worshipped idols from al-Aws and al-Khazraj, while the Apostle of Allah (sa) was at that time at Medina before the battle of Badr. (They wrote): You gave protection to our companion. We swear by Allah, you should fight him or expel him, or we shall come to you in full force, until we kill your fighters and appropriate your women…”

Abu Dawud Book 19, Hadith 2998

In this letter, the Meccans threaten the Medinites with war and threaten their women with enslavement for accepting the Prophet into their midst. It was in this context, once the Muslims were forced to flee from their homes due to faith-based persecution, and yet still were threatened with death, that God permitted Muslims to take up weapons in self-defence. Even then, fighting was permitted only for the purpose of preserving freedom to live in peace and to worship God. Thus, at this very moment, God Almighty granted the Muslims permission to defend themselves and their people as per the following verses of the Holy Quran:

“Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged — and Allah indeed has power to help them —Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.”

Holy Quran 22:40-41

Migration Recommended over Self-Defence

Note should be made that in this verse, God gives permission for self-defense after Muslims have left the land where they were persecuted. Only after migration where they permitted to take up arms in self defense when the Meccans continued to persecute them in their new land. As such, the Islamic teaching is that if you are persecuted, the first response should be to migrate. If migration takes you out of reach of the persecutors, then you have no right to take up arms. Thus, migration is the first recourse to the persecuted, and self-defense only comes into play once that is undertaken. Thus the Quran states: 

“Verily, those whom the angels cause to die while they are wronging their own souls, they (the angels) will say to them: ‘What were you after?’ They will reply: ‘We were treated as weak in the land.’ They will say, ‘Was not Allah’s earth vast enough for you to emigrate therein?’ It is these whose abode shall be Hell, and an evil destination it is”

Holy Quran 4:98

In this verse, those who rebel against a state due to persecution or have abandoned their faith due to persecution, can be described as those who are “wrong their own souls”. The verse applies better to those who rebelled against the state, since the angels ask such souls after death “what were you after?” and the reply given references their political weakness. Islam describes such rebels as hell-bound, for not having availed of the possibility of migration before taking up arms.

the city of mecca

Therefore it was only this extreme condition, when the lives of the innocent Muslims were on the brink of extinction, that God Almighty granted permission to defend not only themselves, but all places of worship. Note should be made of the order the Quran gives to the places of worship to be defended. It begins with “temples”, before moving on “churches” and then to “synagogues”, before mentioning “mosques” last. Thus, the places of worship of those who religious doctrines are furthest from Islam, such as Hinduism, are mentioned as the first places to be defended, and those places of worship from such religious as are doctrinally closest to Islam, are mentioned last, along with “mosques”. Is there a more beautiful verse in any religion promoting freedom of conscience like this? 

Jihad in the Modern Age

The principle outlined above is that if persecution for one’s faith occurs, one must migrate first. Thereafter, if persecution continues, self-defense is permitted. 

For it to be termed a “jihad” however, there is a third important condition: the appointed Imam of the Age, must declare such a Jihad. Only then does it become Jihad in the true sense. 

In this age, the Imam of the time was the Promised Messiah (as), founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. His successors or Khalifas who represent him, are therefore the designated Imams of the time. 

The Imam of the age, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), stressed on the fact that Jihad in this day and age is not by the gun, since, except with the Kosovo crisis, Muslims are not killed anymore solely for their faith. Instead, all of the wars being fought in the world are economic in nature, or relate to territorial disputes. Instead, the greatest attack against Islam is on the character of the Holy Prophet (sa) and the name of Islam, through propaganda. It would be a great injustice of Muslims if they were to respond to these allegations and arguments by picking up the gun. The fact is that the right way to answer these allegations is through counter arguments through writings and through presenting the true picture of Islam. 

Hazrat mirza ghulam ahmad (as) – the promised messiah and imam mahdi

The Promised Messiah (as) lived the true Jihad of this time, and attained the title of Sultan ul Qalam, meaning the “King of the Pen” by God, through the incredible amount of literature written by him in defence of Islam, and fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah and Mahdi would rejuvenate the true teachings of Islam. In the modern age, his fifth successor, has continued the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and the Promised Messiah by undertaking the correct form of Jihad, that is, his holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), the fifth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Community, who, in his book Pathway to Peace, has published the letter he has written to all world leaders, advising them to stop the injustice they perpetrate in the name of National Interest, and look establish peace thereby. 

Many Sunni and Shi’a Muslims believe that the Messiah and Mahdi who were to come would kill non-Muslims and set up the Islamic state, handing over worldly and political riches to the Muslims. This belief is in direct contradiction to the Quran, which states that there is no compulsion in matters of faith, and further, in direct contradiction to the most reliable hadith about the future Messiah, which states that he would abstain from fighting and establish peace instead. Thus, the hadith of Sahih Muslim state: 

…Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to (Mount) Tur…

Sahih Muslim 2937a

“Abū Hurairah (ra) narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: ‘Whosoever from amongst you that is living when ‘Īsa (Jesus) son of Maryam (Mary) arrives, the Imām Mahdī and Hakam ‘Adil (Just Arbiter), (know that) he will break the cross (yaksaru al-Salīb) and kill the swine (yaqtalu al-Khinzīr) and put Jizyah (yada’ al-Jizyah) and war (yada’ al-Harb) to an end (awzāruhā).’”

Musnad Ahmad 9002

The Promised Messiah (as) has written repeatedly that the idea that the coming Messiah would wage war against the disbelievers is un-Islamic and false. He writes: 

“…The commonly held doctrine professed by some of the divines that the Promised Messiah will descend from heaven and will fight the disbelievers and will not accept the poll tax and will offer only the choice of death or Islam is utterly false. It is brimful of all types of error and mischief and is utterly opposed to the Holy Quran and is only an invention of the imposter.”

Nur ul Haq, Part 1, Ruhani Khazain, Vol 8, p. 67

Indeed, Allah Almighty states in the Quran (22:40-1) when the permission for Jihad was first given in the Quran, that whoever does true Jihad in God’s way would receive the help of God. Those people who insist that Jihad in this day and age should be done through killing, should show us the success that has come through their efforts. On the contrary, when we look at their state, we see nothing but failure. If we take the examples of 9/11 or the 7/7 bombings, or subsequent attacks in Europe by groups loyal to ISIS, and analyse, how many people as a result of these attacks converted to Islam, or what positive impact did these attacks have on the west? It only created further hatred of Islam and Muslims, and more problems and troubles for both ordinary non-Muslims as well as the majority of peace-loving Muslims. On the contrary, millions of people have entered the fold of Islam through the Jihad of the pen, and continue to do so.


The daily Jihad we do on a daily basis is for the purification of our souls and for the peaceful spreading of the message of Islam. If you are a Muslim, right from the morning we are leaving our warm beds to wake up for prayers. In this day and age, we are being challenged with many distractions from technology, social media, television and other activities, leaving very little time to give attention to our religious duties. Putting all these to a side and taking one step towards Allah is a great Jihad in itself. The more of these footsteps we take, the greater our purification will be. Thus, the epicentre of the teachings of Islam is this Greater Jihad of self-purification. This is the true meaning of Jihad, a holy war against your own evil tendencies.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) related what God told him and this should be the motivation for our self-purification:

On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him), who said that the Prophet (sa) said: Allah the Almighty said: I am as My servant conceives of me. I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I draw near to him a cubit, and if he draws near to Me a cubit, I draw near to him a fathom. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him running.”

Hadith e Qudsi, Number 15; also reported by Bukhari, Muslim and At-Tirmidhi

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