That's a scary word, for many people. The word jihad can conjure up images of swords, beheadings, violence and mayhem. I'd like to take a moment to explore the idea of jihad in Islam.
Let me remind you of what I've already introduced: Islam is the faith of many, many different people. And those people will interpret their beliefs in different ways, just as all Christians or Jews do not believe or practice the exact same interpretations of their faiths as each other. So jihad, and how it is understood, is not a uniform idea for all Muslims in all places.
That being said, when one uses the Qur'an as a primary source for understanding ideas about Islam, when it comes to Jihad, there are some significant points to be made.
First, the meaning of the word jihad, a noun, comes from the Arabic three letter root, j-h-d, which at its core means struggle. Several verbs can be formed from this root having various meanings such as to endeavour, strive, overwork, fatigue, fight, wage holy war, take great pains, concentrate on, work hard and formulate an independent judgement in a legal or theological question. Nouns formed from this root include strain, exertion, endeavour, attempt, effort and make every conceivable effort.
The main passages in the Qur’an which speak about the idea of jihad come from suras (chapters) eight and nine, respectively loosely translated into English as The Spoils of War (al-anfāl) and Repentance (al-tauba). The context of these chapters, and this time period at the beginning of Islam in general, is a time of much war. From the years 622 (the year Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina) to 632 (the year he died), there were many wars in which Muslims were involved. In fact there is so much literature dealing with this subject area that together it has a special name: maghazī (military campaigns of the prophet Muhammad). Muhammad and his followers spent much time growing their power and control over the region, with much of the power gained through war. It is no wonder, given this context, that there would be a plea within the historical literature and sources, for the people to fight, what was called, in the cause of Allah.
The maghāzī and Qur’an are not the only sources of Muslim literature that discuss the idea of jihad. In addition, the subject of jihad can be found in the sira (literature devoted to the biography of Muhammad), tafsīr (Quranic commentary), akhbār (reports or stories) and hadīth (traditions of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions passed down first orally and then in writing). It is this last category, from which much of modern commentary on the subject is taken.
In history, the subject of jihad has been divided up into two categories, the greater jihad and the lesser jihad. It is the lesser of the two which is normally recognized as being the physical fighting which takes place in war, normally between believers in Islam and non-believers. The greater jihad is said to be the struggle that exists inside each person, an internal struggle, to do good. For those familiar with traditional Christian theology, this could be likened with the internal struggle people face with what is understood to be their sinful nature. At one point, in medieval times, a well-known conservative proponent of Islam, Ibn Taymiyya (from the school of Ibn Hanbal whose school of thought later led to modern Wahhabism), refuted the idea that the greater jihad was an internal struggle. He insisted that physical fighting was the greater of the two ideas and was equivalent in some ways to the pillars of Islam. (Jihad is not considered one of the five pillars of Islam amongst the majority of the Sunni schools of law.)
As you can see, the subject of jihad, like many within Islam, is a complex matter. Even Muslims, among themselves, are not in agreement with each other about every facet of jihad, let alone sometimes even the larger concepts of the term. In the West today, most Muslims would agree that the greater jihad is the internal struggle we all face towards justice and integrity, both in our own lives and in seeking a society that treats all equally. As we strive to understand each other better (a form of jihad might I remind you!), we will be working towards a society wherein each person is respected, regardless of religious belief. This is a jihad in which I believe God would be pleased.