Islam and War: True Meaning of Jihad

Greater jihad and Lesser jihad

Jihad or the holy war is a concept, which is multi-dimensional and can vary in different situations. An Occidental understanding of jihad is that it means holy war. However, the Islamic meaning of jihad as demonstrated by John Kelsay (1993) is much different from the western perception. Kelsay demonstrates that there exists a clear difference between greater jihad or al-jihad al Akbar and lesser jihad or al-jihad al-Asghar. The concept of greater jihad embodies the idea of peace as preached by Islam. The greater jihad embodies Islam as a religion of peace. Islamic scholars believe that greater jihad is actually the responsibility of all Muslims. The word jihad was initially coined during the Quranic revelation when the word was used as a truly ethical and moral faith and a means of holding on to one’s faith and tranquility during adversity. The greater jihad is the way to maintain one’s faith towards righteousness and is considered to be the spiritual struggle to trounce enticements and carnal desires. Therefore, any struggle fought within man to overcome these temptations is considered a greater jihad to strive to be a better Muslim.

The lesser jihad is, on the other hand, the violent struggle to oppose and fight against injustice, any struggle fought to defend Islam and its teachings, and create a just society. In order to do this, many radical Muslims have resorted to an active mode of armed struggle. Therefore, lesser jihad implies the armed struggle to achieve these religious goals. This concept of jihad was enshrined in the Medinan period of the religion when the Mecca Muslims went on killing the new Muslims and the latter had to fight back in order to save themselves from this injustice. The lesser jihad, therefore, relates to the violent form of jihad that attains its goals through armed struggle.

The lesser jihad is therefore the radical struggle. The concept of the greater jihad is the jihad of faith, hand (which implies good word), and tongue (i.e. righteous speech). However, Muslim jurists also present jihad with the sword that gives direct impetus to armed fighting. This ignites extremism and justifies lesser jihad.

Jihad may not always mean holy war. It can be simply a struggle to expand the religious belief or redeem the Islam territory from the non-Islamic rulers. Therefore, jihad is not necessarily a means of “holy war”. It may just aim to expand the boundaries of Islam or disseminate Islamic teachings. This struggle may occur in various ways. According to the Prophet, “It is the duty of every Muslim to command the good and forbid the evil with the heart, the tongue, and the hand (or sword).” (Kelsay, 1993, p. 34) Therefore, according to the Islam religion, the greater jihad is the struggle that occurs within “one’s own heart” in the process of accomplishing oneness with God. The struggle with tongue implies the endeavor to spread the message of Islam. However, Sunni theorists laid importance on the use of force when the situation so demanded. This is the lesser jihad.

Criteria for the lesser jihad

The lesser jihad, as proscribed by the Sunni theorists, was a force meant to attain peace. Moreover, in using this means there were rules which would lead to just use of armed conflict.

  1. The cause for which the force is used must be just. Therefore, the endeavor to extend the boundaries of the Islamic territories must be a just cause for using force. This if necessary has to be followed with permission from the whole of humanity in order to “walk in the “straight path” (Kelsay, 1993, p. 35). For instance, Sunni Muslims would feel that the war against Israel is righteous as it is to attain the lost Muslim land and therefore the use of force is valid.
  2. A declaration of the Islamic intentions is to be made (Kelsay, 1993). The Muslim ruler first has to peacefully communicate with the non-Muslim ruler to accept Muslims in one or two ways. Therefore, either they have to embrace Islam or they have to pay tribute to the Islamic state (Kelsay, 1993). Such a declaration sent to the non-Muslim ruler states that if these conditions were not met, the Muslim state would engage in an armed struggle against the country. In the 1991 Gulf war, Abbas Amdani, the leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) declared jihad to overthrow Kuwait for they felt that the latter was encroaching upon their land.
  3. Further acceptance and acknowledgment of authority are imperative. No common Muslim has the right to declare war if the non-Muslim state denies accepting Islam, it is only the head of the Islamic state who can declare struggle. It is the head who is responsible to assess the military strength of the Islamic State and it is the duty of all adult Muslim men to obey the summons of war if called upon by their leader.
  4. Further, the war must be fought keeping in mind Islamic values. In other words, the Muslims fighting in the war must fight with the “right intent”. this war cannot be used by the Muslim soldiers as a path towards personal glory, or to loot and plunder, but to attain the cause set by God. Further, the soldiers are expected to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent and in order to attain victory they are to use minimum force (Kelsay, 1993). The Sunni prophets, according to Kelsay, were realistic in forming this rule, as war and use of force, at times become inevitable, and are necessary. However, it is also important to remember the desired end of the war, which is always peach. Therefore, the path to victory must be attained using as little force as possible. For instance, the fight fought for Palestine by Hamas against Israel is legitimate jihad according to the Sunni theorists as they were fighting to gain back the originally Muslim land from the Christian invaders. Therefore Hamas is fighting for their homeland which is a justified cause for lesser jihad according to the Sunni rules. From the perspective of Hamas, the loss of homeland for the Palestinians is not only a great loss for those who lost their home by also for the entire Muslim community.

A holy war at the declaration of the caliph is enough for Sunni Muslims to engage in a violent jihad (Kelsay, 1993).

A Taliban fighter in Afghanistan

Jihad fought by the Taliban in Afghanistan is a form of jihad to spread the Muslim way of life in the country. This entails that the Taliban is spreading the word of God in their own land. Further, the aim of the Taliban soldiers is to ensure that all Muslims embrace the orthodox Muslim way of life, denouncing all forms of modernity and western ways of life. The justification according to the Sunni theory is that they are spreading the word of God and therefore are rightful in their cause. However, in spreading violence among the people of Afghanistan, they have embraced violence while lashing out against their own kind. This refutes one of the rules wherein the soldiers of jihad must learn to identify the guilty from the not guilty.

Sunni insurgent in Iraq fighting against U.S. troops

From the point of view of a Sunni Muslim from Islam, fighting a war against the US troops in Iraq is completely justified. The US troops were capturing their territory i.e. Muslim territory. According to the rules of jihad set by the Sunni theorists, there has to be jihad when their territorial boundaries encroach. However, a Sunni Muslim does not adhere to one of the rules – the Sunnis in Iraq do not have a leader after the death of Saddam Hussein who could send a declaration to the US troops or declare war against them, in the absence of which a common man cannot declare war.

Shiite in Iraq

From the point of view of a Shiite from Iraq, fighting against the US troops would be justified fro Shiite theory allows force only as a form of defense, and in order to save themselves, Shiites would use force.

Muslim Palestinian refugee

Palestine is a Sunni Muslim community. The problem of the Gaza Strip between Palestine and Israel goes back long in history. According to Palestinians, this stretch of land was part of their homeland and had been encroached upon by non-Muslims. Palestine being a predominately-Sunni community believes in the theories of Sunni theories, which justifies the use of force when the leader had declared war. Therefore, a common person from Palestine would feel justified to have used violence and force against Israeli soldiers whom they believe had wrongfully taken away their homeland.

A member of the Iraq government of Nouri Al-Maliki

A member of the Iraq government run by Nouri al-Maliki will not be fighting the US troops in Iraq as they share the same belief that the supporters of erstwhile president Saddam Hussein were wrongfully holding the country.

Jihad has it various colors and explanations. The two factions of Islam – Shiite and Sunni factions greatly differ in their understanding of jihad and in the use of violence. Islam had laid the path for the greater jihad, which all Muslims must follow. This is an inner struggle to abstain from temptations. However, another form of jihad states that in order to attain certain religious goals, the use of force becomes inevitable. If I would have been in the place of these people I would have gone with greater jihad for not any of the extremist groups have satisfied the four criteria set by the Muslim theorists to engage in lesser jihad. Taking the path of lesser jihad would mean I would have to participate in an armed conflict and that without a justified reason is impossible. A justified reason for the Muslims may be the land wrongfully taken away but that reason has to be recent and not one that stretched back to centuries. This leads to the path of lesser jihad. In conclusion, jihad is ultimately attaining religious goals; however, the path to attain can be numerous.


Kelsay, J. (1993). Islam and War: The Gulf War and Beyond, a Study in Comparative Ethics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Premium Papers. 2023. "Islam and War: True Meaning of Jihad." January 5, 2023.

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Premium Papers. "Islam and War: True Meaning of Jihad." January 5, 2023.