What is Jihad?

wiseGEEK Writer

Jihad is the Arabic word for struggle or striving, especially in relationship to becoming a better person spiritually. The Jihad is occasionally called the Sixth Pillar of Islam, since it is the responsibility of all in the Muslim faith to master tendencies that would make them less worthy to Allah.

The original use of the word "jihad" describes the spiritual quest of Muslims as they submit to God and deepen their spiritual practice.
The original use of the word "jihad" describes the spiritual quest of Muslims as they submit to God and deepen their spiritual practice.

Jihad is also taken to mean a holy war on behalf of Islam. This has been the meaning closely associated with terrorism. According to extremist positions, to sacrifice one’s life for Islam is considered a Jihad. Further, protection of Islam from invaders or threat through warfare is defined as Jihad as well.

Jihad can be closely associated with terrorism.
Jihad can be closely associated with terrorism.

This latter meaning evokes debate and sometimes fear in those not of Muslim origin. For many people who are Islamic, Jihad is a personal battle to be more moral, in essence, to be a good person. One’s acts and deeds, especially when hard to perform are acts of Jihad.

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A map of the Middle East.
A map of the Middle East.

A Christian concept similar to Jihad is the idea of the war between flesh and spirit, which is often couched in “warlike” terms. People talk of the battle between the yearnings of the flesh they attempt to deny. Such things like lust, greed, gluttony, and desire for power must be subdued in order to walk the path of Christ, according to many Christians.

Jihad in its most basic sense is this same struggle. It is something of a war, and a holy one, without ever requiring setting foot on a physical battleground. It is instead the human struggle to curb the profane so one can tend toward the sacred. The Jihad, for most Muslims takes place on a personal level and is not expressed in an outward fashion toward others.

Islam itself means peace through surrender or submission to the will of God. This implies that all members of Islam practice daily Jihad toward achieving that peace. Submission means allowing God to be dominant, and his will to be superior. This requires some effort.

There is intense debate among Islamic scholars and adherents as to the validity of Jihad practiced through actual warfare. Some condemn all violence that is not directly self-defense. Yet others feel that Jihad by the sword, or jihad bis saif is an acceptable and honorable way to defend threats to one’s religious practices or freedom.

It is argued by those who support continued warfare in the Middle East, that invasions or threats by other countries undermines the strength of Islam and threatens the Islamic way of life. There may be some validity in this argument, since Westernization of a country can affect religious practice.

However, most arguments for Jihad by the sword are exaggerated or specious. Most moderate Islamic scholars and religious leaders condemn Jihad that targets the innocents, as is common in acts of terrorism. Yet, Islam did rise to power through Jihad of the sword, in the form of battles, as well as through treaties.

The Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire could not have been achieved without Jihad of the sword, since it enabled Islam to control numerous countries. Most moderate Muslims, however, believe that the time of religious wars should be long over, and that Jihad of the sword is of far less importance than the daily personal struggle to submit one’s self to God’s will.

Jihad groups commonly take hostages.
Jihad groups commonly take hostages.

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Discussion Comments


In their golden age, Ottoman sultans didn't need jihad. They saw themselves above this concept. Although they obtained the title of 'khalifa' in the early stages of their golden age, they never used it to initiate Jihad. Because the Ottomans were a merger of Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities, as a direct continuation of the Byzantine Empire before it.

In eastern Europe, Serbia, Hungary and Greece stood as the bulwark of the empire for centuries. If you initiated jihad in such a position, you would get a lot of strong resistance in your own lands, even within your palace too, because many high-ranking officers were originally Christian.

So Ottomans didn't resort to Jihad until they were quite weakened in their stagnation and regression periods, and during World War I. It had some benefits, but mostly, the consequences were a lot heavier.


Recognizing the inner struggle of desires is necessary to any religious endeavor in any faith. Overcoming grief, passion, and dangerous emotions, and using them for good, is an important part of religions which shape societies and govern all functions of life.


In many ways, the West is seen as having strayed from God and has become like the "flesh," according to some people of faith. The profound influence of the West on the world is seen as a taint of Satan on the world. There is little understanding in these circles concerning Western concepts of separation of church and state, difference in opinion, and free speech. Many times, Americans are lumped into one big guilty category in their eyes, and this makes for an unnecessary tragedy. Americans should recognize this tendency, in turn, and not make judgment calls.

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