The word “election” is a fairly common term in the American vocabulary, especially every four years during Presidential campaign seasons. Its basic meaning, of course, is “the act of choosing or selecting.” However, were you to ask what the term “election” means in the Bible, and a Christian were to answer you, “Oh, it simply means “choosing or selecting someone or something,” you would be right to think him/her rather disingenuous, because in the Bible the word has become a technical term, typically associated with the thoughts of predestination and the historical or eternal plans and purposes of God.
The situation is similar in Islam with the word “jihad,” which is commonly translated in the non-Muslim world as “holy war.” Muslim apologists regularly dispute this, declaring that the word itself literally means simply “effort or striving.” Many are quick to point out a minor tradition in the Hadith collections where Muhammad, upon returning from battle with his troops, declares, “We have all returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” His companions, confused, asked him, “What is the greater jihad, O Prophet of God?” His response: “Jihad against the desires.” As a result, Muslim apologists insist that the main meaning of jihad involves the spiritual battle against the baser lusts of human nature, in spite of the fact that Islamic scholars universally rate this particular story as “da’if,” meaning “weak” and therefore unreliable. On top of this is the overwhelming evidence in the Qur’an and Hadith and other early Islamic traditions that “jihad” principally is of the “lesser” variety.
A simple investigation of these texts reveals that “jihad” is a technical term within Islam – most common meaning is “striving with whatever means available/necessary for the supremacy of Islam.” It has little to do with an internal spiritual battle in the heart for holiness, but is almost exclusively concerned with the advancement of Allah’s cause in the world.
As such, “jihad” is an expansive term. It does not only refer to the use of force to increase the sovereignty of Islamic control in the world. Muslims refer as well to the jihad of the mouth or the pen, i.e., the effort to persuade others of the supremacy of Islam through argument. This form of Muslim “evangelism” is spoken of as “da’wah,” which means literally “call or invitation,” and is the softest form of jihad – an effort to expand the supremacy of Islam by convincing others peacefully to join its ranks. But there are other forms of jihad as well: jihad of the hand – the use of good deeds toward others to promote the greatness of Islam; economic jihad – the use of financial pressure to win advantages for the spread of Islam; political jihad – taking advantage of the freedoms and benefits of non-Muslim countries in order to weaken or subvert those nations; civilizational jihad – the expansion of Muslim populations in non-Muslim countries both by immigration and birth rate, so as to outnumber the native population and ultimately institute a Muslim government and Shari’a law; and finally of course, jihad of the sword, which we now know so well since 9/11 (over 30,600 deadly Muslim terrorist attacks around the world in the last 16 years) – the use of force to terrorize and conquer non-Muslim populations.
Jihad is glorified in the Muslim world, especially jihad of the sword. Those who kill and are killed while pursuing jihad fi sabeel Allah (armed conflict “in the way of/for the sake of” Allah are promised the highest honors and pleasures of Paradise (see Quran 9:111). The term is joined in the Qur’an with two other militant terms involving bloody conflict with the enemies of Islam: qital and harb. The former denotes fighting with weapon in hand so as to slay one’s foe; the latter is the Arabic word for “war.” While jihad occurs 28 times in the Qur’an commanding or explaining the use of force “for the sake of Allah,” qital occurs 33 times and harb 6 times. There is no question that the principal Qur’anic meaning for jihad involves the physical battlefield and the destruction or subjugation of Islam’s enemies.
In addition to this, the earliest biographies of Muhammad revel in the fact that within a year of his migration to Medina, the Arabian prophet begins drumming this theme of jihad into the minds and hearts (and treasure chests) of his followers, promising them both earthly and heavenly rewards for becoming soldiers of Allah. Islamic sources relate that Muhammad commanded or led over 70 military raids or battles in the nine years from 623 until his death in 632 – an average of one every 6-7 weeks. It’s not hard to conclude that jihad played a central role in Muhammad’s vision of spreading his religion’s supremacy over the unenlightened world around him.
The greatest amount of teaching from the prophet on the subject of jihad is found in the Hadith collections. Of these six collections (in the Sunni tradition) the greatest by popular and academic acclaim is that of Bukhari. Of the roughly 200 reports dealing with jihad found in Bukhari, 2% of them might be classified as the “greater jihad” of the heart; the other 98% focus on the “lesser jihad” of the sword. There is no question as to where Muhammad put his emphasis, according to orthodox traditions collected by his followers.
The topic of jihad also occupies a prominent place in Shari’a law. According to one manual of Shari’a, ‘Umdat as-Salik (which has the endorsement of Sunni Islam’s greatest university, al-Azhar), “Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion” (p.599; emphasis mine). The laws concerning jihad are based on 95 particular verses from the Qur’an as well as various hadith reports. This Qur’anic support is greater than that supplied for any other topic covered by Shari’a law!
Some apologists have conceded that while jihad may mean war against infidels, such war is always defensive – only legitimate in response to an attack on Muslims. In fact, this is not the case. Over the course of Muhammad’s career, his teaching on how to deal with infidels evolved. Early on, when his followers were few and his enemies strong, Muhammad counseled the use of da’wah – seeking to persuade unbelievers through winsome words and compelling arguments. After his followers began to experience persecution (facing the loss of possessions, being forced from their homes, etc.), he announced that they had the right to fight back to reclaim what they had lost. The third stage moved from defensive to offensive jihad – his followers could seek out and fight Islam’s enemies wherever they were, but not during the four holy months of the lunar calendar which were commonly regarded by all on the Arabian Peninsula as set apart for pilgrimages to various shrines. Finally, when Muhammad and his armies were seemingly invincible, he (and Allah) overruled the customs of the day and commanded the Islamic armies to engage in offensive jihad with no restrictions. Those commands remain in force even today, for no human being can annul what Allah has revealed through his final prophet. Thus, orthodox Islam is committed to jihad until all the world has bowed in submission to Islam by living under Shari’a law as administered by the Caliph of the Islamic state, as commanded in the Qur’an:
“And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and [all and every kind of] worship is for Allah [Alone]” (2:193).
According to the Qur’an, Islam’s enemies are manifold. First to be dealt with are those who have initiated attacks against the Muslim community or lands. Of course, this can comprise almost anyone, since the Islamic mind interprets any obstacles to its expansion as an attack upon the religion. Second are the kuffar (these are not merely people ignorant of Islam, but rather those who reject Islam – disbelievers). Third are the mushrikun (those who commit the sin of associating anything in the created order with Allah; in other words, idol worshipers or polytheists – according to Islamic theology, all orthodox Christians are mushrikun, because we believe that Jesus is divine and human). Fourth are “the people of the Book” (Jews and Christians) who have refused to recognize Muhammad as a true prophet, i.e., refused to become Muslims) – in the Qur’an, Jews are cursed directly by Allah ten times; Christians are not far behind. Fifth as enemies of Allah are hypocrites and apostates – those who mouth allegiance to Muhammad but fail to act in the interests of Islam, and those who reject Islam after having originally called themselves believers.
All these enemies are to be fought and defeated, and jihad is the divinely appointed tool to achieve this end. Frequent is the warning in the Qur’an that Muslims who refuse to go to battle will end up roasting in hell, while those who excel in warfare and achieve martyrdom will receive sensual rewards beyond their wildest dreams. It’s no wonder that after Muhammad’s death it took only a hundred years for the armies of Islam to conquer territory as far west as Morocco and Iberia, and as far east as India and the western reaches of China, all from the starting point of the Hejaz in western Arabia.
So when you hear Muslims or their propagandists declaring with great authority that Westerners are wrong to speak of jihad as “holy war,” and that jihad really only means “effort or struggle,” and principally refers to the work of spirituality in the Muslim’s heart, and only involves the sword when Muslims have been attacked, please set them straight. You have the weight of the Qur’an, the Hadith, the Sira (biography of the prophet), the early, bloody history of expansionist Islam, the Shari’a and the interpretations of countless Muslim scholars on your side.