The word jihad is derived from jahd or juhd means to strive, exert oneself or take extraordinary pains. Jihad is a verbal noun of the third Arabic form of the root jahada, which is defined classically as exerting one's utmost power, efforts, endeavours or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation. The word jihad is used 36 times in the Koran, and the derivatives of the root occur in 41 Koranic verses. Five of these contain the phrase, jahd aymanihim meaning strong oath.
Jihad is of three kinds; viz. the carrying on of a struggle: against a visible enemy, against the devil and against self (nafs). According to Ibn Athir, jihad means fighting with unbelievers, and that is an intensive form (mubalagha), and exerting one's self to the extent of one's ability and power whether it is by word (qaul) or deed (fi'l). Jihad is therefore far from being synonymous with war, while the meaning of war undertaken for the propagation of Islam, which is supposed by western circles to be the significance of jihad, is unknown equally to the Arabic language and the teachings of the Koran. Equally, or even more important is the consideration of the sense in which the word is used in the Koran. It is an admitted fact that permission to fight was given to the Muslims when they had moved to Medina. But the injunction relating to jihad is contained in the following Meccan verses:-
"And those who strive hard (jahadu) for Us, We will certainly guide them in Our ways, and God is surely with the doers of good" (29:69). It indicates spiritual striving to attain nearness to God and the result of this jihad is stated to be God's guiding those striving in His ways.
The Arabic word jahadu is derived from jihad or mujahida, and the addition of fi-na (for Us) shows, if anything further is needed to show it, that the jihad, in this case, is the spiritual striving to attain nearness to God, and the result of this jihad is stated to be God's guiding those striving in His ways. The word is used precisely in the same sense twice in a previous verse in the same chapter: "And whoever strives hard (jahada), he strives (yujahidu) only for his own soul, for God is Self-sufficient, above need of the worlds" (29:6). In the same Koranic chapter, the word is used in the sense of a contention carried on in words: "And We have enjoined on man goodness to his parents, and if they contend (jahada) with Me, of which you should associate other with Me, of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them" (29:8).
In one place in the Meccan revelations, it is said, "And strive hard (jahidu) for God, such a striving (jihad) as is due to Him" (22:78). And in the other: "So do not follow the unbelievers and strive hard (jahid) against them a mighty striving (jihad-an) with it" (25:52), where the personal pronoun "it" refers clearly to the Koran as the context shows. Now in both these cases, the carrying on of a jihad is clearly enjoined, but in the first case it is a jihad to attain nearness to God, but in the second it is a jihad which is to be carried on against the unbelievers, but a jihad not of the sword but of the Koran. The struggle made to attain nearness to God and to subdue one's passions, and the struggle made to win over the unbelievers, not with the sword but with the Koran is therefore, a jihad in the terminology of the Koran and the injunctions to carry on these two kinds of jihad were given long before the command to take up the sword in self-defence.
Among the later revelations may be mentioned the 16th chapter, where it is said towards the close: "Yet thy Lord, with respect to those who fly, after they are persecuted, then they strive hard (jahadu) and are patient (sabaru), thy Lord after that is surely Forgiving, Merciful" (16:110).
A struggle for national existence was forced on the Muslims when they reached Medina, and they had to take up the sword in self-defence. The struggle went also, and rightly, under the name of jihad; but even in the Medina chapters of the Koran, the word is used in the wider sense of a struggle carried on by words or deeds of any kind. As a very clear example of this use, the following verse may be quoted, which occurs twice: “O Prophet! Strive hard (jahid from jihad) against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and remain firm against them; and their abode is hell; and evil is the destination” (9:73, 66:9). Here, the Prophet is bidden to carry on jihad against both unbelievers and hypocrites. The hypocrites were those who outwardly assumed the mantles of the Muslims, and therefore the injunction to carry on a jihad against unbelievers and hypocrites could not mean the waging of war against them. It was a jihad in the same sense in which the word is used in Meccan revelations.
The Prophet is also credited with a saying: “The best jihad is (speaking) a word of justice to a tyrannical ruler” (Abu Daud, 4:122)
The Prophet is reported to have said: “Every prophet sent by God to a nation (ummah) before me has had disciplines and followers who followed His ways and obeyed His commands. But after them came successors who preached what they did not practice, and practiced what they were not commanded. Whoever strives (jahada) against them with one’s hand is a believer, whoever strives against them with one’s tongue is a believer, whoever strives against them with one’s heart is a believer. There is nothing greater than (the size of) a mustered seed beyond that in the way of faith.” (al-Muslim, 1: 69-70)
Muhammad Ali writes in al-Jihad fil-Shariyya al-Islamiyya (Cairo, 1973, pp. 12-13) that upon returning from a battle, the Prophet said to the Muslim soldiers, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” When asked what he meant by that, he said, “The greater jihad is against the carnal soul.” The Prophet also said, “The mujahid is the one who does jihad against his carnal soul” (Ihya’u Ulumi’d-Din, Tehran, 1976, 3:4). Hence, the major jihad means the fighting against the carnal soul, which is extremely necessary.
When Moses descended from Mount Sinai and found the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf, they were enjoined to “kill themselves” as punishment. The Koran says: “And when Moses said to his people: ‘My people you have done wrong against yourselves by taking the calf (as an object of worship); now turn to your Creator in repentance and kill yourselves (uqtulu anfusakum). That will be better for you in the sight of your Creator and He will relent towards you’” (2:54).
The term uqtulu anfusakum (kill yourselves) has nothing to do with the sword of any other person. It refers to kill their carnal soul as punishment and return to God. Ahmad bin Abd Rahman ar-Rubti writes in Ar-Rasail al-Mirghaniyya (Cairo, 1939, p. 94) that, “It is your duty to struggle with the soul, this being the major jihad, to the end that the soul may be delivered from reprehensible attributes through their substitution by praiseworthy ones.”
When there is a just cause for jihad, which must have a righteous intention, it then becomes an obligation. It becomes and obligation for defending religious freedom (22:39-41), for self-defence (2:190) and defending those who are oppressed: men, women and children who cry for help (4:75). It is the duty of the Muslims to help the oppressed, except against a people with whom the Muslims have a treaty (8:72). These are the only valid justification for war we find in the Koran. Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir (1:310) writes that, “Jihad is not of the essence of religion nor one of its goals. It is only a protective shield and is resorted to as a matter of political necessity. The common hysteria and its misguided exponents who assume that faith is established by the sword merit no attention whatsoever.”
We must discuss two Koranic verses, which are normally quoted by those most eager to criticize Koranic teachings on war: 2:191 (‘slay them wherever you find them’) and verse 9:5, branded as Sword Verse. Both verses have been subjected to decontextualisation, misinterpretation an mispresentation. The first verse comes in a passage that defines clearly who is to be fought: “Fight in the path of God (fi sabi’l illah) those who fight against you, but do not transgress limits (wala ta’tadu); for God does not love transgressors” (2:190).
This verse advocates defensive fighting, but the importance of this verse lies in the understanding of the word ta’tadu, the root meaning of which is to pass beyond something. The particular form of the verb found in this verse signifies passing beyond the proper limit, which corresponds with English equivalent, to transgress.
“Those who fight against” means actual fighters – civilians are protected. When the Prophet sent out an army, he gave clear instructions not to attack civilians – women, old people, religious people engaged in their worship – nor destroy crops or animals. Discriminations and proportionality should be strictly observed. Only the combatants are to be fought, and no more harm should be caused to them than they have caused (2:194). Thus wars and weapons of destruction that destroy civilians and their towns are ruled out by the Koran. The prohibition is regularly reinforced: “Do not transgress limits; for God does not love transgressors.” Transgression has been interpreted by Koranic exegetes as meaning “initiation of fighting, fighting those with whom a treaty has been concluded, surprising the enemy without first inviting them to make peace, destroying crops or killing those who should be protected.” (Baidawi’s commentary on 2:190).
Linguistically we notice that the verses in this passage always restrict actions in a legalistic way, which appears strongly to Muslim’s conscience. In six verse (2:190-5), we find four prohibitions (do not), six restrictions: two “until”, two “if,” two “who attack you,” as well as such cautions as “in the way of God,” “be conscious of God,” “God does not like aggressors,” “God is with those who are conscious of Him,” “with those who do good deeds” and “God is Forgiving, Merciful.” It should be noted that the Koran, in treating the theme of war, as with many other themes, regularly give the reasons and justifications for any action it demands.
“Slay them where you find them and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution (fitna) is worse than killing” (2:191).
“Slay them wherever you find them” has been made the title of an article of on war in Islam. In this passage, “them” is removed from its context, where it refers back to “those who attack you” in the preceding verse. “Wherever you find them” is similarly misunderstood: the Muslims were anxious that if their enemies attacked them in Mecca, and they retaliated, they would be breaking the law. Thus, the Koran simply gave the Muslims permission to fight those enemies, whether outside or inside Mecca, and assured them that the persecution that had been committed by the unbelievers against them for believing in God was more sinful than the Muslims killing those who attacked them, wherever they were. The whole passage (2:190-5) comes in the context of fighting those who bar Muslims from reaching the Sacred Mosque at Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. This is clear from verse 2:189 before and verse 2:196 after the passage. In the same way, the verse giving the first permission to fight occurs in the Koran, also in the context of barring Muslims from reaching the Mosque to perform the pilgrimage (22:25-41).
We must also comment on another verse much referred to but notoriously misinterpreted and taken out of context – that which became labeled as the Sword Verse: “Then when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, take them and besiege them and prepare for them every ambush” (9:5).
The hostility and bitter enmity of the polytheists and their fitna or persecution (2:193, 8:39) of the Muslims grew so thick that the unbelievers determined to convert the Muslims back to paganism or finish them off: “They would persist in fighting you until they turn you back from your religion, if they could” (2:217).
It was these hardened polytheists in Arabia, who would accept nothing other than the expulsion of the Muslims or their reversion to paganism, and who repeatedly broke their treaties, that the Muslims were ordered to treat in the same way – to fight them or expel them.
Even with such an enemy Muslims were not simply ordered to pounce on them and reciprocate by breaking the treaty themselves; instead an ultimatum was issued, giving the enemy notice, that after the four sacred months mentioned in 9:5 above, the Muslims would wage war on them. The main clause of the sentence: “kill the polytheists” is singled out by the western scholars to represent the Islamic attitude to war. This is pure fantasy, isolating and decontextualising a small part of a sentence. The full picture is given in 9:1-5, which gives many reasons for the order to fight such polytheists. They continuously broke their agreements and aided others against the Muslims, they hatched conspiracy and hostility, barred others from becoming Muslims, expelling Muslims from the Holy Mosque and even from their own homes. The passage at least mentions eight times their misdeeds against the Muslims. Consistent with restrictions on war elsewhere in the Koran, the immediate context of this Sword Verse exempts such polytheists as do not break their agreements and who keep the peace with the Muslims (9:7). It commands that those enemies seeking safe conduct should be protected and delivered to the place of safety they seek (9:6). The whole of this context to verse 9:5, with all its restrictions, is absolutely ignored by those who simply isolate one part of a sentence to construct their theory of war in Islam on what is termed The Sword Verse even when the word “sword” does not occur anywhere in the Koran.
It must be noted that the Prophet waged wars is certain as he was compelled, but never a sword was drawn but as a last resort to defend human life and secure safety to it. Invaded on all sides by the enemies, the Prophet had to take field or sent men to meet aggression, which cannot be treated a crusade. The Koran declares war as conflagration, and declares that it is God’s purpose to put out such conflagration whenever it erupts, meaning that when war becomes inevitable, it should be so waged as to cause the least possible amount of damages to life and property, as is said: “Whenever they kindle a fire of war, God extinguishes it. They strive to create disorder in the earth, and God loves not those create disorder” (5:65).
Conversely, the Western biographers of the Prophet have tried to paint a somber picture of the Prophet of a man with a sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, stigmatizing Islam as a religion of sword, which is wrong with its fundamental teachings. The Prophet commanded in battle, but scrupulously refrained from personally shedding blood. His strategy was designed to reduce loss of life and human suffering to the minimum. During eight years of fighting, punctuated with pitched battles and numerous pre-emptive expeditions, the total loss of life suffered by the enemies was hardly 759, and that suffered by his own people was no more than 259 during the total 101 expeditions, in which 27 were commanded by the Prophet himself, and the remaining 74 expeditions were led by other commanders nominated by the Prophet. It is also a matter of notice that during the 27 expeditions commanded by the Prophet, there were only 8 battles, in which actual fighting took place. With this small number of casualties, Islam had spread over a million square miles. It will also be interesting to note that the total number of prisoners taken in all the jihad of the Prophet were only 6564 prisoners of war, out of whom only two were executed for the crimes committed by them, while 6347 were released. The remaining 215 prisoners embraced Islam.