What does the word ‘Jihad’ mean?

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Jihad. The word seems to blast out of every tabloid, weekly newspaper, and nightly news program in connection to the latest terrorist attack or barbaric act of violence or cruelty. The word commonly appears alongside a supposed Muslim terrorist, usually clad in black and brandishing an AK-47 or clutching what seems to be the Quran. Jihad has been equated with “holy war”, “terrorism”, “extremism”, and “radical Muslim”. Instead of describing a terrorist attack it seems almost easier to just claim they were doing “jihad”. What has happened to this word? Do we even know what it means? Why has this word become the epitome of the world’s evil and violence?

As a Muslim, this is not only deeply troubling but also very deeply offensive. Jihad, which is an Arabic word, literally means “to struggle”. It does not mean holy war, it does not mean to fight, and it does not imply any sort of barbaric violence or hatred of non-Muslims. In the most literal sense it simply means “to struggle”. Jihad, which is a major part of our religion, was described by the Prophet Muhammad as having two parts to it: the lesser jihad (jihad-al-asghar), and the greater jihad (also known as jihad-el-nafs, or the struggle of the heart and soul). These two parts must be carefully examined to understand the true meaning of the word and concept of jihad.  

Lesser jihad can also be called the “outside jihad”, and is not always obligatory for every Muslim. This jihad is the struggle to defend oneself against those who commit injustices. In simpler terms, lesser jihad is the struggle against outside physical forces that attempt to harm you or your community. This lesser jihad was used by the Prophet Muhammad when they were attacked by the Meccans and forced to fight back to defend their lives. In other words, lesser jihad can be used in defense of a physical attack. It does not mean we can simply attack other people for whatever political or religious reason. Lesser jihad calls for the struggle to defend and preserve our religion when we are persecuted by those who oppress or commit injustices. Physical defense can also only be used as a last resort, with extremely strict rules on the conduct of war in the case that no other option is available. Dialogue and peaceful political and economic cooperation are required to be used first as a means of reconciliation and resolving the issue before resorting to physical defense. Nowhere in the definition of lesser jihad is there a call for “holy war”, inhumane practices, or barbaric violence.

The second part, greater jihad (or jihad-el-nafs), is also called the “inner jihad”. This is the struggle that happens within all of us, in our hearts and souls. There is a reason why Prophet Muhammad called this the “greater” jihad. This is a fundamental and in my opinion, beautiful aspect of our religion: the inner struggle we all have to be a better Muslim and to be a better person in this world. This form of jihad is a requirement of all of us. This is the struggle to understand the world we live in. This is the struggle to truly believe in our religion and, if we truly believe in it, to love it. This is the struggle to be thankful. Humble. Happy. Loving. Passionate. To rid ourselves of the hatred and darkness that can cloud our hearts and souls and to defeat our inner weaknesses. This greater jihad truly is the greatest struggle we have: against ourselves. As with lesser jihad, nowhere in this concept is a call for “holy war” or violence.

And this, this is why I am so deeply offended by the misuse and casual bigotry that is used with the word jihad. A concept so sacred, so beautiful, and so real to so many Muslims is being twisted into something violent and ugly. I am doing jihad every single day. I am doing jihad when I struggle to be proud of my hijab. When I struggle to remember the importance of charity. When I struggle to pray on time. When I struggle to remember the good, the happy, and the love inside of me that should be cherished above the dark and gloomy thoughts that can drag one down. This beautiful concept that the Prophet enlightened us with is being destroyed. We must, as a collective whole, both Muslim and non-Muslim, put an end to the misuse of the word jihad that is being perpetrated by both terrorism and mass media. We must make an effort to understand the true meaning of the word. This struggle to reclaim jihad is in itself  jihad, to reclaim the beauty of protecting the good and fighting off evil and injustice.

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