Jihad does not mean “holy war” or “violence”. Literally, Jihad is translated to mean “striving” or “struggle”. For Muslims, “the word [jihad] carries in the rhetoric of social justice movements familiar to the West” (Ansary, 2009).

Per the Prophet Muhammad, jihad consist of the Greater Jihad and the Lesser Jihad. It was reported that the Prophet Muhammad, on his way home from the Battle of Badr, said to his companions, “We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] and returning to the Greater Jihad’[1]. Muslims have understood this hadith as referring to the struggle to gain spiritual perfection.

The Greater Jihad or “jihad al-nafs [struggle of the soul], [is] the struggle of the individual against his less self, means a person’s effort to quell negative impulses and to lead a pious life” (Power, 2015). “Striving against temptation, struggling for justice, or trying to develop one’s compassion” (Ansary, 2009). “Struggle of the individual to live a virtuous life, to uphold religious values in one’s personal life, to help propagate Islam through personal effort by way of personal example and promoting the Faith. In that context the word jihad for Muslims retain quite positive religious connotations of personal devotion towards betterment” (Fuller, 2010)

“The Lesser Jihad, as defined by the Prophet, were defense and preservation of Islam and the umma” (Fuller, 2010). While the Greater Jihad is focused on overcoming internal obstacles towards devotion, the Lesser Jihad is focused on overcoming external obstacles to practice religion freely. Jihad is not automatically synonymous with war and combat. The Arabic language more appropriately uses the words al-harb and qital to refer to war and combat respectively. But “the word jihad as “fighting” does come up in the Qur’an, bound explicitly to self-defense. Those verses were revealed at a time when the Quraysh were trying to erase Islam and Muslims from the face of the earth. In that context it was no stretch to argue that fighting had a moral dimension” (Ansary, 2009). The Lesser Jihad does not necessarily have to come in the form of fighting. Efforts like democratic participation, demonstrations, critical discourse, and other endeavors meant to change the environment of a Muslim to allow the practice of Faith are also part of the Lesser Jihad. It was reported that the Prophet Muhammad said, “The best jihad is to speak the truth before a tyrannical ruler”.[2]

“Jihad in its more modern usage has been applied to… the Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-British struggle, as was the secularist President Habib Bourgiba’s campaign for national economic development in Tunisia. Jihad has been applied by some women to struggle for women’s liberation or by others to a struggle for a just moral and social order” (Fuller, 2010). Recently, Muslim leaders have called for a jihad against global warming and environmental destruction, urging Muslims to better preserve the Earth.


A common misconception that raises concern in the West and a misguided interpretation among some Muslims, is that Islam permits brutal violent acts committed during times of war and aggression. Many dub Islam as the religion of the sword, mercilessly advocating for conquest and destruction under the banner of Islam, and to commit acts of terrorism.

However, classical scholars during the Middle Ages had developed a detailed theory of “just war” within the Shariah, which extensively sought to maximize the protection of civilian lives and minimize unnecessary aggression. Per Bernard Lewis (as cited in Akyol, 2013), the eminent Middle Eastern historian writes:

“Fighters in a jihad are enjoined not to kill women, children, and the aged unless they attack first, not to torture or mutilate prisoners, to give fair warning of the resumption of hostilities after a truce, and to honor agreements. The medieval jurists and theologians discuss at some length the rules of warfare, including the questions such as which weapons are permitted and which are not. There is even some discussion in the medieval texts of the lawfulness of missile and chemical warfare, the one relating to mangonels [missile throwers] and catapults, the other to poison-tipped arrows and the poisoning of enemy water supplies. . . . Some jurists permit, some restrict, some disapprove of the use of these weapons. The stated reason for concern is the indiscriminate casualties that they inflict.”[3]
“At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.” “At no point . . . do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.”[4]

This assertion of a just jihad is also made by Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi and Carla Power:

“Jihad had very specific parameters, he said, sternly. One couldn’t harm women, children, or other noncombatants. The enemy’s crops and fields must be respected: “You can’t harm even a tree”. A jihad can be waged only by legitimate Islamic leaders operating openly, not by self-appointed guerrillas striking covertly. And jihad must not target fellow Muslims. “Those who raise their weapons against us,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “are not from us.” Today, the vast majority of the people dying in the name of jihad are Muslims.”

The Sheikh continues to outline the conditions required to conduct a legitimate jihad. “One could only wage jihad only if one was being prevented from worshipping freely… the Sheikh saw jihad solely as a matter of self-defense.” “Muslims need a safe place… enough troops and weapons so that victory looked likely. . . . Contemporary Muslims lacked the causes or the condition for armed struggle.”

Similarly, Graham Fuller (2010) writes:

“Islamic jurisprudence set forth lengthy rulings on rules of conduct in war, including the fact that women and children could not be targeted, that proportionality of force must be used, that civilian structures should not be gratuitously destroyed, that jihad must be declared by a legitimate ruler or head of state, and that warfare outside of the rules of jihad is not legitimate. The Prophet is on record for ordering his soldiers to “avoid harming women, children, the elderly, or people at temples and monasteries.” The ‘ulama in the Middle Ages, for example, debated whether it would be lawful to use catapults against enemy fortresses. Quite a few ‘ulama found them unlawful, because such imprecise weapons could harm civilians as well as soldiers.”

In its truest form, Islamic Just War prescribed only a defensive fight for prosecuted innocent peoples. Islam recognized that the need for military force was inevitable and necessary at times, so instead of seeking an unrealistic ideal form of pacifism, it sought to regulate the legitimacy and conduct of war.

It’s worth to remember that the first fourteen years of Prophet Muhammad’s prophetic career, Muslims practiced a policy of peaceful non-resistance towards Quraysh’s discrimination, humiliation, and prosecution. Two years after the Muslim Exodus (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina, the Quraysh attempted to mount several military campaigns to crush the fleeing Muslims. Muhammad, under that situation, finally revealed a revelation (Qur’an 22:39–40) from God, allowing Muslims to physically defend themselves to preserve their livelihood and community through military force.

The modern Just War Theory consist of principled points to determine the parameters of when war was just and legitimate to wage. We shall look at those points and determine whether the basic texts of Islam fulfilled those same parameters.

1. War can only be waged to regress a wrong suffered (Just Cause)

Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged — God has the power to help them — those who have been driven unjustly from their homes only for saying, ‘Our Lord is God.’ If God did not repel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed. (Qur’an 22:39–40)

There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice — they will have an agonizing torment — though if a person is patient and forgive, this is one of the greatest things. (Qur’an 42:42–43)

How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? (Qur’an 9:13)

2. War can only be waged as a last resort

a. Diplomacy

God may still bring about affection between you and your present enemies — God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful- and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. But God forbids you to take as allies those who have fought against you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers. (Qur’an 60:8–9)

Respond to their Lord; keep up the prayer; conduct their affairs by mutual consultation; give to others out of what We have provided for them; and defend themselves when they are oppressed. (Qur’an 42:38–39)

b. Uphold Treaties

As for those who have honored the treaty you made with them and who have not supported anyone against you: fulfill your agreement with them to the end of their term. (Qur’an 9:4)

But as for those with whom you made a treaty at the Sacred Mosque, so long as they remain true to you, be true to them (Qur’an 9:7)

Treaties have been a very important throughout Islamic history and law. During his prophetic career, Muhammad established various treaties with Arabian tribes, among them were the Constitution of Medina between the rivaling tribes of Medina, the Jewish communities, and emigrated Muslims and the Treaty of Hudaybiyah with the Quraysh.

c. Broken Treaties

And if you learn of treachery on the part of any people, throw their treaty back at them, for God does not love the treacherous (Qur’an 8:58)

But if they break their oath after having made an agreement with you, if they revile your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief — oaths mean nothing to them — so that they may stop. (Qur’an 9:12)

d. Ceasefire

If you have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is best to stand fast. So be steadfast: your steadfastness comes only from God. Do not grieve over them; do not be distressed by their scheming. (Qur’an 16:127)

Let harm be requited by an equal harm, though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his rewards from God Himself, He does not like those who do wrong. (42:40)

e. Withdrawing and Requesting Peace

So if they withdraw and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no way against them. (Qur’an 4:90)

So if they neither withdraw, nor offer you peace, nor restrain themselves from fighting you, seize and kill them wherever you encounter them: We give you clear authority against such people. (Qur’an 4:91)

f. Provide a Warning to Prevent Fighting

If you meet them in battle, make a fearsome example of them to those who come after them, so that they may take heed. (Qur’an 8:57)

Prepare whatever forces you can muster, including warhorses, to frighten off God’s enemies and yours, and warn other unknown to you but known to God. (Qur’an 8:60)

g. Surrender

If they cease hostilities, there can be no further hostility, except towards aggressors. (Qur’an 2:193)

But if they incline towards peace, you must also incline towards it, and put your trust in God: He is the All Hearing, the All Knowing. (Qur’an 8:61)

Kill them, seize them, besiege them wait for them at every lookout post; but if they turn, maintain the prayer, and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection, grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a place of safe for him, for they are people with no knowledge. (Qur’an 9:6)

3. War can only be waged by a legitimate authority

Though there is no explicit declaration in the Qur’an, Islamic scholars have agreed that the conditions for combative jihad is a clear instruction from a legitimate authority. This legitimate authority often times comes from the Imam.[5]

Ibn Qudama, in Al-Mughni writes, “declaring Jihad is the responsibility of the Imam and is his independent legal judgement”. Al-Dardir says, “proclaiming jihad comes through the Imam’s assignment of a leader”. Abu Bakr Al-Jazaa’iri states, “A pure intention and that it is performed behind a Muslim Imam and beneath his flash and with his permission… it is not permissible for them to fight without an Imam”. During the time of the Prophet, all instances of combat were instructed or sanctioned by the Prophet himself.

4. War can only be waged if it has a reasonable chance of success

Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good. (Qur’an 2:195)

M.A.S. Abdel Haleem writes that this verse is interpreted to mean that if you are not prepared to pay for what it takes to defend yourselves, then you will bring ruin on yourself. Jarir al-Tabari recorded that it was the opinion of some that this verse condemns recklessness. During a battle with the Byzantines, the Companion Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari heard some people refer to this verse when a man charged the Byzantine lines and was killed. Others understand this verse as a warning to avoid anything that would lead to self-destruction. There are other interpretations related to ungenerousness, desire of wealth, and repentance.

5. War can only be waged to re-stablish peace (Right Intention)

Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God. (Quran 2:193)

Do not let your hatred for the people who barred you from the sacred Mosque induce you to break the law: help one another to do what is right and good; do not help one another towards sin and hostility. (Qur’an 5:2)

6. War should be conducted without exceeding proportional violence to the suffering

If you have to respond to an attack, make your response proportionate, but it is best to stand fast. So be steadfast: your steadfastness comes only from God. Do not grieve over them; do not be distressed by their scheming. (Qur’an 16:127)

Violation of sanctity calls for fair retribution. So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God, and know that He is with those who are mindful of him. (Qur’an 2:194)

Let harm be requited by an equal harm, though anyone who forgives and puts things right will have his rewards from God Himself, He does not like those who do wrong. (42:40)

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits. (Qur’an 2:190)

So you who believe, be careful when you go to fight in God’s way, and do not say to someone who offers you a greeting of peace, ‘You are not a believer,’ out of desire for the chance to gains of his life — God has plenty of gains for you. (Qur’an 4:94)

Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. If they do fight you, kill them — this is what such disbelievers deserve — but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful. (Qur’an 2: 191–192)

7. War should be conducted only against combatants

And fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. Truly God loves not the transgressor. (Qur’an 2:190, Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

Many commentators use this verse to discuss the rule of the conduct of war. Generally commentators believe that it is prohibited to kill women, children, monks, hermits, the chronically ill, old men, and peasants, as recorded by Ahmad Al-Qurtubi and Umar ibn Khathir (as reference by Nasr, 2015).

The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have ordered his troops:
 “Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the women”.[6]

8. War should be conducted with fair treatment of prisoners

When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captive firmly — later you can release them as a grace or ransom — until the toils of war have ended. (Qur’an 47:4)

Recorded by Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, and Ahmad al-Qurtubi that it was the opinion of some that, this verse is to be understood that prisoners of war can be set free as a gracious act, ransomed for money, or freed to the other side in an exchange of prisoners. Per M.A.S., commentators highlight the fact that ‘by grace’ is the first of the option given in the verse, concluding that it is preferred or recommended to free prisoners as a gracious course of action.

They [God’s servants] give food to the poor, the orphan, and the captive, though they love it themselves. (Qur’an 76:8)

9. War should not be conducted with weapons of evil

Those there is no explicit wording from the Qur’an listing which weapons are permissible and which are not, but as discussed previously, Islamic scholars discussed at some length the use of certain weapons in war. In line with the concern to protect non-combatants and to ensure the amount of violence was proportional to the harm, some Islamic scholars viewed weapons like catapults, poison arrows, and poisoning water supplies to have violated those two principles. Continuous evaluation of more modern weapons can and should be conducted, in the effort to categorize which are permissible and which are not. Using Islamic interpretative tools like analogies, chemical weapons and imprecise bomb strikes, could be potentially forbidden under Islamic law.

It is important to note that while Muslims believe that the Qur’an and the Shariah hold divine wisdom and perfection, Muslims themselves, being imperfect humans, often times do not meet these standards and divine expectations. Thus, it is important to distinguish between what Muslims believe and what Muslims do. Like their Christian counterparts who had trouble following the Just War Theory outlined by their Church Fathers and philosophers, Muslims will throughout history have violated the principle of a Just Jihad. This does not in any way though deny Just Jihad as a valid theory.


The rise of jihadism, the recent wave of radical terror inspired movements, at its core is not a religious phenomenon, but instead a political phenomenon. We can observe throughout the world, that religiously indifferent Muslims have shown sympathy with the causes outline by jihadist groups. Reza Aslan writes that while the clear majority of Muslims condemn the terrorist actions committed by Osama bin Laden, many of them understand and share the grievances voiced out by the jihadist leader.

These grievances stem from the aversion against Western dominance and imperialism. Jihadism is thus a reactionary movement, framed in anti-imperialistic goals, against what they perceive as illegitimate encroachment on the umma, the global Muslim community. Mustafa Akyol writes that Osama bin Laden routinely points out instances where Muslims have been humiliated, oppressed, or killed by non-Muslims, such as in Palestine, Chechnya, and Kashmir. The decades long plight of Palestinians has become an iconic Muslim tragedy, seeing the United States as unilaterally and unfairly pro-Israel. The amounting collateral damage inflicted towards innocent civilians in Muslim countries under “the War on Terror” has also worsen the situation.

Carla Power writes on a dialogue with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi (Power, 2015)

“Contemporary jihads were worldly, not spiritual said the Sheikh. The men waging them operated not from an excess of piety, but a lack of it: “It is just the Islamicization of violence,” he said. “People think they can use Islam to fight for land, or honor, or respect, or money. But these are not religious people. They are just following non-Islamic examples.”

The increasing Islamophobia in Western countries, with highlights of Muslim discrimination, French crackdown on the burqa, Donald Trump’s rhetoric to monitor and ban Muslims, and Switzerland’s ban on minarets, are only a few examples that create a perception of double standards. This in turn creates a vicious cycle of increased Jihadism which in turn increase Islamophobia, which lead to further escalation of Jihadism.

Mustafa Akyol further explains, “people in the Middle East think in terms of history. When the U.S. troops occupied Iraq in 2003, many Americans though that this was an unprecedented initiative, based on the vision of the neoconservatives and the military strategies of Donald Rumsfeld. For most people in the region, though, it was yet another invasion — after those of the Crusaders, the Mongols, Napoleon, and the European colonizers.”

The solution towards Jihadism is thus not to aggressively attack and bombard Muslim countries, as has been the main foreign policy of Western countries. Instead, the first among three viable solutions towards solving jihadism, is to spread salam. Salam, an Arabic word for peace, needs to sent from the West to the Muslim world. Western leaders need to mount a collective push to convince Muslims that Islam as a religion is not under threat. Efforts to decrease the amount of discriminate and enmity against Muslims, would also create a sense of reassurance. In the West, and many other parts of the world, it is important to send a message of inclusivity and acceptance, to reach out to Muslim communities in their countries and show them that they are a welcomed part of the society.

A second solution towards combating jihadism, requires the Muslims community to take upon themselves the interpretative duty to make the teachings of Islam relevant and adaptive towards the changing times of the era. The days of the rationalist theology of the Mu’tazila, the pluralistic cosmopolitan tradition of the Abbasid and the Ottoman Empires, and the general emancipation of women, the poor, the slaves, and the orphans during the Prophet’s times, were all breakthrough progress initiated by Muslims and brought pride to the umma. These were liberal ideas, progressive movements, intellectual in nature, that sought to better the human condition. These Islamic thoughts still exist and can once again be brought to the light. The most important thing that needs to be championed, is an Islamic interpretative movement that seeks to promote an Islam that is both compatible with liberalism and supportive of liberalism. The West in this matter should not frame Islam as diametrically opposed to liberalism, to assume that the secular humanist approach to liberalism or interventions to impose democracy, is the best way to save the Middle East of its “backwardness”. If that dichotomy exist, Jihadist can continue to pride themselves of wearing the mantle of guardians and protectors of “true Islam”. Instead, for progress and liberalism to be promoted, it will require Islamic legitimacy and support, to provide an Islamic alternative to Jihadism, and pave the path to a more progressive Islam.

The last solution to Jihadism is simple, something universally called for by all religions, beliefs, and basic human compassion. Help the poor. Those who are the most disenfranchise part of the society are often the most vulnerable to desperation and exploitation. Many of the recruits joining Daesh are those that were systematically disenfranchised by the new Iraqi government. Many Iraqi Sunnis saw themselves abandoned and forgotten after the United States invasion and by the new Shia government. Rebels in Syria, Palestinians joining Hamas, and followers of Boko Haram, find themselves joining organizations that are willing to give them a helping hand, to accept them, shelter them, accept them in their family, and help provide for their lives. Many of these terrorist organizations proceed in trying to blame their enemies as the cause of their plight and suffering, exploiting their grievances and condition. Everyone around the world needs to better lend a hand to these people. To help those in dire situations, alleviate their poverty, and help them improve their lives. Like what the Prophet once narrated, “anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person, is like a warrior in jihad for God”.[7]

[1] Hadith recorded by Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Bayhaqi in Kitab al-zuhd al-kabir, as cited in The Study Qur’an (Nasr, 2015)

[2] Hadith recorded by Al-Nasa’I number 4226 and Ibn Majah number 4148

[3] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (London: Weidefeld & Nicolson, 2003), p.30

[4] Ibid

[5] Within Sunni tradition, an Imam does not have to be a spiritual or divinely inspired person. An Imam is a leader appointed among the community, may that be for a political position, spiritual, or others.

[6] Hadith Sunan Abu Dawud book 14, number 2608

[7] Narrated by Safwan ibn Salim, recorded in Bukhari


Akyol, M. (2013). Islam with extremes: a Muslim case for liberty. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc.

Ansary, T. (2009). Destiny disrupted: a history of the world through Islamic eyes. PublicAffairs.

Aslan, R. (2005). No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Random House.

Fuller, G. E. (2010). A world without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Haleem, M. A. (2008). The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford University Press.

Nasr, S. H., Dagli, C. K., Dakake, M. M., Lumbard, J. E., & Rustom, M. (2015). The Study Quran: a new translation and commentary. HarperOne.

Power, C. (2015). If the oceans were ink: an unlikely friendship and a journey to the heart of the Qur’an. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Except when stated otherwise, all translated Qur’anic verses is cited from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics)

In no way do I intent to plagiarize the works of other people. In the case that there are any unintentionally unreferenced works, please do kindly contact me, so that the work can be correctly referenced or deleted

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