Concept of "Holy War" or "Jihad"

by Ahmed Motiar

The recent terrorist attack in America has brought the religion of Islam into the spotlight. It is unfortunate that Muslims have become the scapegoats for attacks of terrorism perpetrated locally or internationally. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s declaration of a "Holy War" conjures in the minds of non-Muslims, images of "mullahs in flowing robes’, hell bent on killing and destroying everything and everyone in their path ‘for the sake of Allah (SWT)." Reality is far removed from the erroneous illusion that is portrayed by un-informed people, and the record has to be set straight. Islam, like other Monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Judaism, is a glorious and noble great religion that respects the dignity of all humanity. There will always be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other fanatics who will commit crimes in the name of religion. One should not condemn a nation or a religion or a country, based on the actions of a few individuals. Generalizations breed hatred. Hatred is a cancer that destroys the bearer of this disease. Furthermore, one should guard against the mis-information that is disseminated by some biased media. This short article looks at the concept of Jihad and the context in which this term should be used.


The translation of the Arabic word "Jihad" has been distorted and twisted to such an extent , that it no longer gives meaning to the original term. The word "jihad" means "striving ; exerting oneself in any endeavour; going the extra mile; endurance in the face of obstacles." For example , a student who is studying for his exams , is performing Jihad , because he is striving to succeed in his/her studies. A business owner who is striving to make a success of his business is performing Jihad. A husband who is trying to save his marriage , is performing Jihad because he is striving in the face of obstacles to make a success of his marriage. The Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) stated that the highest Jihad is against oneself . By this he meant that the best Jihad is controlling ones own desires , controlling ones emotions of anger , jealousy , hatred and revenge. To do this , is not easy – that is why it is a Jihad. It is a struggle. It means developing a strong will power and disciplining the mind and the body for a more noble cause and effort. It is only through struggle and hardships that character is developed. Jihad means controlling ones lower, animalistic base desires (the ‘nafs’) and thereby unveiling the true inner spirit of compassion, mercy , love , selflessness and kindness for all humanity. The true test of one’s character comes when a victim does not take revenge when in a position of strength. For example, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. When victory came to him, he could have extracted revenge , and few people would have blamed him. However , he showed true character and a strong will – he controlled his desire for revenge – by controlling his desire for revenge , Mandela performed Jihad. The Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) was persecuted and forced to flee from the land of his birth. He came back victorious after 10 years – in that moment of victory , he was the Superpower of Arabia and he could have annihilated all his enemies – yet , not a single drop of blood was shed – he performed Jihad of the highest order, when he forgave his enemies. The Prophet Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) performed Jihad when he prayed to Allah (SWT) to forgive his enemies "for they know not what they do." The Prophet Jesus (Peace Be Upon Him) did not pray for revenge-he controlled his inner desire (‘nafs’) for revenge. Mahatma Gandhi performed Jihad when he exercised self control and embarked on peaceful (passive) resistance against the British army.

In addition to the types of Jihad described above , even looking after your parents is a Jihad. When a man was about to join a battle, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) encouraged him to instead look after his ailing parents – that is, it is a better form of Jihad than going for a battle. We all know that sometimes it is difficult to be kind and polite to our parents. But for Muslims, to be kind , merciful and respectful to parents is a duty of the highest form , even more rewarding than being a Martyr in a battle.

A man came to the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) asking his permission to take part in Jihad. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) asked him, "Are your parents alive ?" . He replied in the affirmative. The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said to him, " Then exert yourself in their service." {Sahih Al Bukhari Hadith, 4.248 Narrated by Abdullah bin Amr (RA) }

Furthermore , for women , the best form of Jihad is to perform the Hajj. The Pilgrimage of Hajj is a strenuous and arduous journey filled with hardships and requires much tolerance on the part of the one who embarks on this journey.

Sahih Bukhari Hadith 4.43 Narrated by Aisha (RA) , that she said " O Allah’s Apostle ! We consider Jihad as the best deed . Should we not fight in Allah’s cause ? " He (Peace Be Upon Him) said : " The best Jihad (for women) is Hajj Mabrur (ie Hajj which is done according to the Prophet’s tradition and is accepted by Allah)."

Holy War

Warfare is one type of Jihad. Warfare is also a form of striving. However , fighting and warfare in Islam is only allowed in extreme and very exceptional circumstances. All avenues of discussion , negotiation and communication must be exhausted before the route of warfare is embarked upon.

The Holy Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) said : " The best fighting (Jihad) in the path of Allah is (to speak) a word of justice to an oppressive ruler." {Sunan of Abu Dawood Hadith 4330, Narrated by Abu Said al-Khudri (RA) }

A Muslim is only permitted to take up arms in two main instances . Firstly , against an oppressive government. Secondly , in self defence. When any of these two conditions are present , then a Muslim is permitted to take up arms , provided that the decision has been made by a group consensus of leading Ulema’s (Scholars and Jurists). In this case , striving in this effort , against an oppressor , is known as Jihad. It does not matter who the oppressor is – all Muslims have a duty to fight all forms of oppression, discrimination and slavery (whether it is social, political or economic). If a Muslim is oppressing a Muslim, then all Muslims must perform Jihad against the Muslim ruler to fight on behalf of the silent masses. If a Jewish government is oppressing its Jewish citizens, then Muslims have a duty to perform Jihad against the oppressor. If a Christian government or a Hindu government or a Communist government or any other oppressive government is oppressing its citizens , then Muslims are duty bound to assist and free the victims of oppression.

In the current news media , a lot of media hype was caused when Afghanistan declared ‘Holy War" . It should be remembered that Afghanistan is not the aggressor. Afghanistan has declared a Holy War , only in self – defence , in response to America’s declaration of war against Afghanistan. There is not a single shred of evidence , that this poorest country in the world (Afghans are dying daily due to hunger , lack of water , lack of medical facilities and lack of proper sanitation) , which does not believe in technology (citizens are not even allowed Television) , or Usama Bin Ladin , a Bedouin , living in the deserts and caves of Afghanistan , could ever be responsible for this precise, very sophisticated military hit on the Pentagon. By declaring a "holy war’ , Afghanistan is simply doing what any country in the world would do , that is , declare a state of Emergency (Holy War) to defend its citizens against a possible apocalyptic catastrophe . There is nothing sinister in this approach.

Islamic Rules of Conduct in Warfare

Islam places great emphasis on the rules of conduct in any war . War is the last resort, when all other measures fail. Discussion and negotiation win more wars and battles than military conflict- "jaw-jaw" is better than "war-war." In the extreme scenario when war is inevitable , then Muslims are duty bound to abide to the following very strict conditions of warfare which have been commanded by the Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him) in various authentic Hadith such as :

Al Muwatta Hadith 21.10 Narrated by Yahya (RA)

The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said : " I advise you 10 things : Do not kill women or children or aged, infirm person. Do not cut down fruit bearing trees. Do not destroy an inhabited place. Do not slaughter sheep or camels except for food. Do not burn bees and do not scatter them. Do not steal from the booty and do not be cowardly."

  1. The war should be confined to the battle field : soldier against soldier
  2. No woman or child, or elderly man , or any civilian not involved in the battle , should be harmed in any way; thus there is no concept of hostages or terrorist attacks on innocent civilians in Islam
  3. The environment , fruit bearing trees, water , houses , animals , birds, insects and livestock or essential supplies cannot be harmed or damaged in any way
  4. Torture of prisoners is forbidden. In fact , the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) encouraged his followers to treat the captives with compassion and kindness . In the event that Muslims had prisoners, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) enjoined on his followers to first feed the prisoners , before he ate.
  5. A war must only be waged for the sake of Allah , meaning that the war must not be done for any material gain eg capturing land for territory ,wealth, oil or gold;

    The Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said : " The action dearest to Allah Most High is Love for Allah’s sake and hatred for Allah’s sake." {Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 5021 Narrated by Abu Dharr (RA) }

    Sunan of Abu-Dawood Hadith 2510 narrated by Abu Huraira (RA)

    A man said :" Apostle of Allah , a man wishes to take part in Jihad in Allah’s path desiring some worldly advantage ? The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said : " He will have no reward."

  6. A war cannot be waged on another nation to force them to accept Islam , because Allah clearly commands in the Quran " there is no compulsion in religion". Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world , not because of threats or warfare , but simply through the tools of logic, common sense and reason. Unlike other religions, Islam has not been tainted by human folly’s of interpolation , additions and deletions to the original Word of Allah.
  7. Before any war is contemplated , irrefutable facts and evidence must be presented. No one can act on hearsay or suspicion. Justice and fair-play are necessary preconditions because human lives are at stake. In Islam , the sanctity and sacredness of all human life is firmly entrenched in the following guidance : if someone kills an innocent person without cause , it is as if he has killed the whole of humanity. If someone saves a human life , it is as if he has saved the whole of humanity.
  8. War must be terminated as soon as the opposite party relents – continuation of the war to extract sadistic revenge is totally forbidden
  9. Arrogance is totally forbidden and usurping the rights of the defeated nation by making life difficult for them is not allowed as shown in the following :

The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said :"Those who occupy much space or encroach on the road will not be credited with Jihad." (Sunan of Abu Dawood , Hadith 2623 , Narrated by Mu’adh ibn Anas al-Juhani (RA) }

This is what makes war in Islam a ‘holy’ war – that is , a war that is conducted with the highest morality , ethics and a code of conduct of behaviour. Muslims are fully aware that all their actions will be judged one day by Allah , the one and Only , Who will judge between all humanity. This is the Day of Accountability where every action of every person will be displayed. No Muslim will dare utter that he is performing an action "for the sake of Allah" , when his actions are against the Code of Conduct laid down in the Quran and shown by the Prophet Mohamed (Peace Be Upon Him). Thus the word "holy" simply means that it is a war with ethics, compassion and the highest moral conduct by all combatants.

Unholy War

In contrast , a war that is conducted by some Western nations is not regarded as "holy" or ethical from an Islamic point of view or any other point of view , as the following few examples illustrate :

  1. America used 80 000 tons (80 Million kilograms) of cluster bombs which do not discriminate between civilian and non-civilian targets in Iraq . This is ‘unholy" and not ethical . More than 1 million innocent civilians lost their lives . Buildings, land, dams, electrical power stations, schools and hospitals were totally destroyed thus catapulting this 1st World country back to the primitive Stone Age .
  2. More than 5000 children under the age of 5 years are dying every month since 1991 in Iraq because America used depleted Uranium (outlawed internationally) and because of ongoing sanctions on this crippled nation. This is unethical and unholy.
  3. The use of Agent Orange by America , on Vietnam , is unholy. Agent Orange is carcinogenic and mutanogenic and has not only affected humans , but has also destroyed the environment for decades
  4. The use of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima is unholy and unethical , since it killed many innocent civilians but in addition , the cancer effects on the population and the destruction of the environment are still being felt today and for generations to come
  5. The gassing of Jewish civilians by Germans in the Holocaust was unholy and unethical
  6. The action of an armed Israeli soldier who shoots a 6 year old Palestinian Child in the head is "unholy " and unethical
  7. Destroying the homes of Palestinians with bulldozers or Apache Attack Helicopters , killing and torturing thousands of Palestinians who are fighting for their freedom and their land that was unlawfully usurped from them , is unholy and unethical
  8. The ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia is unholy and unethical
  9. The kamikaze attack on the World Trade centre where innocent civilians died in the planes and on land is unholy and unethical
  10. The hoarding of wealth by a few industrial nations who live in opulent luxury , while millions in Africa , India , Pakistan, South America and other parts of the world are living in abject poverty is regarded as ‘unholy’ and ‘unethical’ – Muslims are duty bound to restore the living conditions of all humanity. Poverty is economic oppression
  11. The unlawful underwater testing of nuclear weapons is unethical and unholy since it destroys millions of marine life and damages the oceans of the world


There is only One God. The One God does not give conflicting information to different religions. We are all children of Prophet Adam (Peace Be Upon Him). One should not condemn a nation or a religion on the basis of the actions of a few misguided people. An American Citizen is no more and no less important than a non-American Citizen. One should conduct our affairs with justice , compassion , dignity , respect and mutual tolerance for all humanity, black or white , great or small, Muslim or non-Muslim. We are one family. We are one humanity. We need a new world order based on the respect , dignity , compassion and love for all humanity. We pray to Allah (SWT) , to grant us Guidance , Forgive us our shortcomings and to Grant the Wisdom of Solomon to all world leaders to make decisions that will uplift all humanity and not selfish decisions to earn political points or flaunt the lands with brutal arrogance. All humanity has to embark on a global Jihad to bring peace to this world. Ameen.


by courtesy & © 2001 Media Review Network & Ahmed Motiar

Copyright © 2000 Media Monitors Network. All rights reserved.  
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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