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Greater and Lesser Jihad Essay

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Updated: May 19th, 2020

The importance of jihad stems from the Quran’s instructions to the believers of Islam to struggle for the way of God and the example set by Prophet Muhammad and his followers. The general concept of jihad refers to the responsibility of all Muslims to obey God’s will. Jihad is one of the pillars of Islam1 whose concept of struggle on the way to God can be traced back to the prophet and his men in the early days of Islam. According to this practice, all Muslims have an obligation to follow and fulfil God’s will, i.e. to live with virtues taught in the Quran and to spread the tenets and doctrine of Islam by way of preaching, educating, writing, and other ways to effectively spread the word. Jihad also means to fight against injustice and cruelty, to spread and defend the Islamic doctrine, and create a fair and just society. This can be done through preaching and teaching, by peaceful means or through armed resistance. Ever since Islam was founded, Muslims have rallied to defend their religion. (Esposito, 2010)

There are two other meanings of Islam which can be violent or non-violent. It has been told through tradition that once when Muhammad and his men arrived from battle, he told them about the lesser and the greater jihad. The greater jihad is the nonviolent one which is about fighting one’s ego, selfish desires, greed and covetousness and above all evil. The greater jihad is the fight against the enemy inside; it is an ‘internal struggle’ (Kelsay, 1993).

Contrary to beliefs of those who don’t really know and haven’t studied Islam, jihad is not the same as “holy war”. Some Muslim rulers use it, with the connivance of religious scholars, in legitimising expansion of empire. Terrorists and extremist groups use the concept of jihad to mislead people and their followers to legitimize terroristic acts, rebellion and killing. In the present times, terrorists use jihad as a way of God’s tolerance to terminate lives and opponents of Islam. False Islam preachers promote jihad to help them establish a global Islamic government.

The earliest years of the Muslim tradition on the concept of jihad referred to the time when Muhammad and his people crossed from Mecca to Medina to escape persecution. Muhammad and the early Muslims had to defend themselves from aggressors.2 Even in the actual conduct of war, there are guidelines for jihad. The Quran specifies who must fight and who are exempt from fighting, when the fighting has already stopped, and how to treat prisoners of war.

Criteria for the “Lesser Jihad”

Jihad is not just fighting for the spread of Islam. It must be justified and that it is for the defense of Islam. Some guidelines about jihad include: jihad cannot be promoted for material and personal gain; the rights of jihadists must be respected by all; the rights of the minority and vulnerable, such as women, children, and the disabled, should also be respected; prisoners of war must be respected; places of worship should not be destroyed; and religious people and priests should not be harmed. (Esposito, 2010)

The “lesser jihad” refers to what they call “holy war” but the aim of jihadists is to unite countries of the world into one Islamic state. According to Hizbullah’s interpretation of the Quran, the concept was derived from Quranic verses: verse 193 of Baqara (which asks followers to fight in the name of Allah) and verse 33 of al Tawba (which sets Islam above any other religion). These verses legitimize the will to go in the way of jihad to spread the religion Islam over the entire world. (Hamzeh, 2004, p. 38)

In the past, we have Sadam Hussein who proclaimed that the Arab people were great because of their being the first witness to Islam. Sadam told Muslims to be an example for others to follow. He reminded people of the need for war against evil and injustice (Kelsay, 1993). These themes were Sadam’s reasons for jihad and he gained some successes. Many of his followers opposed the Allied forces who invaded Iraq and up to now there is still dissention in the occupation of Iraq.

Every Muslim has the right to defend himself: if a Muslim is attacked he/she can react and do what is necessary to defend himself/herself. Everyone has a right to protect his own life, his hard-earned property and wealth, and to have equal protection along these lines. Muslims may have waged wars and conquered nations but this only proved that they have not waged first the greater jihad which is fighting against their evil desires.

Jihad is also used to fight injustice – this is one of the most relevant meanings of jihad in relation to its role in society today. However, in a jihadist’s fight against injustice, jihad must not be related to violence over which it is now correlated with. Jihad can be connected with social justice, an advocacy for many including other religions, to protect communities and people in order to establish a fair, just and prosperous society. This is one of the great challenges of modern Islam, to fully understand the contexts of the Quran and the Prophet’s vision in the midst of the world’s injustice towards developing nations. For example, Prophet Muhammad advocated that a good neighbour should share his blessings with others3. It is a responsibility and not just a mere occasion. Muslims have to share their wealth or feed those who have nothing to eat.

Suicide bombing can be traced to Lebanon’s Hizbullah, or to militants fighting for Palestinian liberation, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers. The Iraqi suicide bombers have been conducting their attacks against occupation forces in Iraq. There is a puzzling situation in the suicide bombing in Iraq against the U.S. forces. According to Mohammed Hafez (2007), suicide bombing in Iraq is conducted by suicide bombers from other countries, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, etc. Hafez asked why foreigners wanted to become martyrs in Iraq. Was it because they loved Iraq like their own home country? Hafez linked ‘individual motivations, organizational strategies, and societal conflicts’ in his theory about the suicide attacks. Social conflicts become opportunities for organizations to mobilize martyrs from other countries and who also come from marginalized areas. These groups have connections with informal jihadi networks and they can mobilize attacks for enemies who are found in strategic locations.

Jihad means Muslims have the duty to commit themselves to fight in many fronts in order to follow the teachings of the Quran. These are the moral, spiritual and political fronts, which society has imposed on Muslims and Christians. Naturally, the Muslims were the minority at that time. But for any given time, Muslims must fight for the poor and vulnerable and to make society just and a decent place to live with. Fighting might be needed at times, but it is only a tool and a small portion of the whole struggle to make life just and worthy for all and to follow the words and phrases in the Quran. Muslim rulers commit unscrupulous acts and atrocities; selfish rulers only want power, wealth and selfish ambitions but they do not follow the Islamic Code of Conduct. For example, Mahmood of Ghazni was a Muslim who attacked the Hindus and also planned to attack the Islamic Caliph of Basra. Many Muslims committed acts of atrocities in India, as described by Pandit Nehru in his vivid account of Muslim rulers in the book Discovery of India. Nehru argued that those Muslims were acting not according to religious doctrine but by selfish motives.

The “Greater Jihad”

Greater jihad is an important form of struggle which refers to the inner struggle taking place within our very soul. This refers to the internal and spiritual; it is about an individual’s fight against evil in the mind or imagination. Greater jihad is fighting the ‘animal inside’. Humans have some characteristics they share with other animals that when uncontrolled can make them fiercer than wild beasts. This is what happens to those who conduct lesser jihad without first overcoming the greater jihad. If a Muslim first practices greater jihad, i.e. the Muslim learns to control and fight the evil inside, he/she will be able to fulfil the true and real tenets of jihad as contained in the Quran.

Jihad can be used to defend the community and for the rights of others. Ayatollah Mortaza Motahhari wrote that the holiest form of jihad is that which is fought to defend humanity and the rights of peoples (Noorani, 2002, p. 47). Prophet Muhammad preached the religion Islam while being persecuted. He was forced to go to Medina for fear of his life, and for this reason, Muhammad was known as a preacher brandishing sword. In truth, he was fighting for his life along with his followers. He was born amidst war in seventh-century Arabia where people had no more values. When he went to Medina, he was a refugee escaping the fangs of death. (Noorani, p. 48)

In Medina, the Muslims were asking the people to participate in the jihad which was not about fighting and bloodshed. Jihad means an act of spiritual and intellectual transformation. But there were some Muslims who misunderstood its true meaning and context.

Jihadists abound in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. They were one of the first to be organized by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam during the Soviet invasion. These motivated extremists came from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries in the Middle East, concerned of their brothers in Afghanistan. When their mission in Afghanistan ended, they went home to their countries of origin but only to be persecuted by their governments. They went back to Afghanistan feeling safe with the Taliban who ruled the country at that time. These people knew nothing except to wage war and train combatants; and so, they built training camps and trained jihadists and would-be suicide bombers. Their goal was to make them fight the western countries. These jihadists became trainers and parts of terrorist cells across the Middle East and other parts of the world. They helped some cells mount terrorist activities against their own governments. (Hafez, 2007, p. 165)

At the height of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, suicide bombers counter-attacked the U.S. occupation forces. They penetrated heavy populated areas and detonated themselves. Suicide bombing is the new effective tool of so-called jihadists against their enemies. There is no logical explanation why young people submit themselves to jihad and commit suicide. Suicide is not promoted in jihad, and in fact, suicide is not permitted in Islam. But leaders of these suicide bombing contend that it is the highest form of martyrdom.

These volunteers were recruited by religious but charismatic leaders who convinced them that martyrs are promised of eternal bliss in heaven. Religious leaders also excommunicate people who are non-believers and who do not submit to their will. Some terrorist organizations are trying to get hold of a nuclear bomb, or an anti-ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, so that they can create as much casualty as they can. Islamists believe that the more people they kill, the more they are admitted in heaven. (Rosenberg, 2009, p. 137)

I believe this is the worst radical (or cruel) belief man can ever have. No matter how oppressed an ethnic minority or a country can be, there is no valid reason to terminate innocent lives. And this is not jihad, as what we have explained in the early section of this paper. Jihad promotes love for one’s neighbour and peace for mankind. There are reasons for jihad and it is not holy war, it is not violent, and it is not killing innocent people. There are valid jihadists who do not resort to violence. These are people who promote peace instead of war. They fight back only to defend themselves from aggressors.


Esposito, J. (2010). The future of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Hafez, M. (2007). Suicide bombers in Iraq. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Hamzeh, A. (2004). In the path of Hizbullah. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Kelsay, J. (1993). Islam and war: A study in comparative ethics. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press.

Noorani, A. (2002). Islam & Jihad: Prejudice versus reality. New York: Palgrave.

Rosenberg, J. (2009). Inside the revolution: How the founders of jihad, Jefferson, and Jesus are battling to dominate the Middle East and transform the world. United States of America: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.


1 Some scholars argue that jihad is not one of the pillars of Islam.

2 Quran speaks of a legitimate defense against aggressors. Muhammad received special instructions or revelations from God about conducting jihad. (Esposito¸2010)

3 “he is not a good neighbour if he eats while his neighbour goes hungry” (Noorani, 2002, p. 47).

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