Jihad is an Arabic word meaning "striving hard" or exerting yourself to the best of your power and ability. The Holy Quran frequently urges Muslims to strive hard, using the word jihad to mean striving.
What kind of striving does the Holy Quran talk about?
The Holy Quran mentions the following purposes for which a Muslim should strive hard:
1. to attain nearness to God, by struggling to overcome your bad desires;
2. to stick to Islam under difficult circumstances, such as when facing persecution and other problems;
3. to take part in the defence of the Muslim community when it is attacked by an enemy who wishes to destroy Islam.
4. to take the message of Islam to others, by devoting your time and money for this work.
Can you quote passages from the Holy Quran to illustrate this?
Referring to the four points numbered in the last answer, we give below some verses of the Quran which mention those kinds of striving. The word translated as "striving" in all these verses is jihad.
1. "Those who strive hard towards Us, We certainly guide them in Our ways." (29:69)
In this verse, God says that He guides to the right ways those who strive hard to reach Him. This is the jihad to improve yourself by doing good and restraining bad desires.
2. "To those who flee after they are persecuted, then strive hard and are patient, surely your Lord after that is protecting, merciful." (16:110)
This speaks of Muslims who were persecuted in Makka, and had to flee their homes. Their jihad was to remain patient and steadfast while facing severe difficulties.
3. "Allah has made those who strive, with their property and their lives, to excel by a high degree those who hold back." (4:95)
This verse refers to the war being fought by the Muslims, and says that those who strived by giving their wealth and their lives for this cause hold a higher rank than those who held back.
4. "Strive against them (the non-believers) a mighty striving with it (i.e. with the Quran)." (25:52)
Here Muslims are told to undertake a "mighty" jihad against the non-believers by taking the Quran to them so that its evidence, arguments and beauty may convince them of the truth of Islam.
So Jihad then doesn't mean war waged by Muslims against non-Muslims?
No, most certainly not. Neither does the word jihad itself mean war, nor is it used in the Holy Quran to mean war. Even when Muslims were still living in Makka, during the first half of the Holy Prophet's mission, before there was a Muslim state or army in existence, God commanded them to do jihad, saying:
"Strive hard for Allah with due striving." (22:78)
This could not possibly mean fighting anyone. It just meant striving to attain nearness to God and to help the cause of Islam.
Why is the word jihad applied to the battles of the early Muslims?
Because these battles had to be fought for the very existence of the religion of Islam, and because the Muslims had to strive hard by risking their lives and by sacrificing their possessions. Taking part in these battles was a great struggle, done only to save Islam from destruction and no other reason.
Before their emigration (hijra) to Madina, while living in Makka, the converts to Islam had to face terrible persecution and torture. But they bore it all with patience. In the Quran this was also called a jihad on their part. After the Muslims had been forced to emigrate to Madina, the opponents of Islam in Makka decided to wage war upon them. So the Muslims then had to fight battles in self-defence. As they had no proper army or equipment, each member of the Muslim community had to do, and to give, all that he or she could. They volunteered to fight in the battles, and gave their money and possessions for the war. Therefore this was called a jihad by means of one's life and property.
Does this mean that Islam only allows Muslims to fight wars for certain justified reasons?
Yes, and the reasons are clearly laid down in the Holy Quran. It says:
"Permission to fight is given to those on whom war is made, because they are oppressed . . . those who are driven from their homes without a just cause except that they say: Our Lord is Allah." (22:39-40)
"Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight you, but be not aggressive. Surely Allah loves not the aggressors." (2:190)
It is only for self-defence that fighting is allowed by Islam, and not to conquer land or enslave other people. The Holy Prophet Muhammad only fought battles under these conditions. In fact, Muslims at that time did not want to fight, as the Quran says addressing them:
"Fighting is enjoined on you, though it is disliked by you." (2:216)
If jihad does not mean fighting a war, can every Muslim take part in some kind of jihad at all times?
Not only can they do so, but taking part in jihad (or striving hard) is essential, as the Quran says:
"Only those are believers who believe in Allah and His Messenger, then doubt not, and strive hard with their wealth and their lives (or selves) in the way of Allah." (49:15)
The two kinds of jihad, which can be undertaken all the time, are: firstly, striving hard for personal improvement, and secondly, striving to take the message of Islam to others. The meaning of striving with your wealth, in case of the first kind of jihad, is to spend it to help others, and in case of the second jihad to spend it on the propagation of Islam. The meaning of striving with your lives, in case of the first kind of jihad, is to struggle against the lower and wrong desires of one's self, and in case of the second kind of jihad it means giving your time, talents, and energies to help in the work of the propagation of Islam.