What is jihad?
Jihad (pronounced jiHAAD) comes from an Arabic verb that means “to struggle or exert oneself.” In recent years both Muslims and non-Muslims alike have bandied the term about so loosely that one has to do some digging to retrieve an accurate understanding of it. According to news reports, everyone from the scarcely devout Saddam Hussein to Usama bin Ladin and the Taliban has called for a jihad against somebody, usually “the West.” Hence the virtually automatic translation of jihad as “holy war”—at best a misleading, and at worst a highly inflammatory, interpretation. Jihad does have a range of precisely defined meanings in Islamic tradition. Under prescribed circumstances jihad can include offensive military action against any place where the free practice of Islam is under threat of constraint. Many scholars in recent times have held that one cannot justify an offensive jihad unless Muslims are being persecuted religiously. Even then, therefore, we are talking about a type of defensive action.
Military jihad has always been subject to strict criteria and is in many ways parallel to the Christian notion of “just war.” Criteria in classical sources include the following: warriors must be believers (though some jurists disagree, and Muhammad was flexible), adult, and male (except in surprise attack or indirect support roles); they must be of sound mind and body, free, economically independent, and acting with parental support and good intentions. Jihad must be declared by an authoritative leader following an offer of terms of peace. Warriors must spare noncombatants unless they are clearly helping enemy cause. Very few, if any, recent calls for jihad have actually satisfied the necessary criteria.
Muslims also speak of various nonviolent forms of jihad. One can battle injustice and evil through jihad of the pen or the tongue, for example. When someone asked Muhammad what the greatest jihad was, the Prophet replied that it was to speak a word of truth in the ear of a tyrant. An important theme in Islamic spirituality has been called the “Greater Jihad,” as distinct from all the various forms of exterior, lesser jihads. Warriors of the spirit must take up the sword of self-knowledge against the fiercest enemy of all, their own inner tendencies to evil and idolatry.