The primary meaning of the Arabic word "jihad" is the waging of war against the enemies of Islam. It can also refer to the struggle between good and evil within an individual's soul. This metaphorical understanding of jihad was developed by the Sufis, the Muslim mystics, in the ninth century AD, based on a hadith (oral tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad. On the basis of this hadith, spiritual jihad was termed "the Greater Jihad" (al-jihad al-akbar), while jihad on the battlefront was termed "the Lesser Jihad" (al-jihad al-asghar).
A standard 11th-grade textbook used in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority makes jihad's meaning plain for its student readers:
"Jihad is the Islamic term equivalent to the word 'war' among other nations. The difference is that jihad is [war] for the sake of noble and exalted goals, and for the sake of Allah… whereas other nations' wars are wars of evil for the sake of occupying land and seizing natural resources, and for other materialistic goals and base aspirations."
To properly understand the place of jihad in the Muslim worldview, it is important to keep in mind that Islam has been, from its very beginning, not only a religion but a political community -- the nation of Islam (ummat al-Islam). Muhammad was not merely a prophet communicating the word of God, but a political leader and military commander. Hence, any victory by the army of a Muslim state over non-Muslims is perceived as a victory for Islam itself. According to Islam, Allah promised the Muslims victory and superiority over all other religions worldwide. Allah validated this message with the Battle of Badr, in Ramadan of 624 AD, when 300 Muslim warriors under Muhammad's command vanquished the 950-strong army of the Quraysh tribe -- a military feat which played a crucial role in shaping the Islamic consciousness.
This victory was not an isolated event. Rather, it was the harbinger of an impressive series of victories that led to the rise of a Muslim empire stretching from India to the Atlantic Ocean. The Prophet Muhammad's assertion that "Islam is superior and cannot be surpassed" reflects the Muslim sense of superiority, and this self-perception remained unshaken for many centuries, even when the political and military reality no longer supported it.
According to the traditional Muslim outlook, humanity is divided into two groups: the followers of Islam who are called "believers," and all non-Muslims, who are called "infidels." It is the duty of the Muslims to propagate the one true faith -- Islam -- throughout the world. Should the infidels refuse to embrace Islam, jihad is the means to be used to vanquish them.
Among the infidels, Islam distinguishes between two main groups: "idolaters" or "polytheists" on the one hand, and the "People of the Book" -- Jews and Christians -- on the other. The People of the Book are granted special status in Islam, and their fate is different from that of the polytheist infidels. The Muslims are commanded to fight the People of the Book until they either accept Islam or agree to pay the poll tax (jizya). The basis for dealing with them is laid down in the Koran: "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, of the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya out of hand, in a state of submission..." (Koran 9:29). By paying jizya, the People of the Book indicate that they submit to Muslim rule and accept the status of protected people, called in Arabic ahl al-dhimma.
Just as humanity is divided into believers and infidels, the world itself is also divided into the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam), namely the region under Muslim rule, and the abode of war (dar al-harb), referring to all lands not yet under Muslim rule, which must be conquered by the sword, i.e., through jihad.
Jihad is not regarded as a personal obligation (fard 'ain) incumbent upon every Muslim. According to the shari'a (Islamic law), jihad is a collective duty (fard kifaya) of the Muslim nation, or community, as a whole. It is the Muslim ruler who decides when and against whom to declare jihad. When a Muslim ruler declares jihad, it becomes a personal obligation for those whom he orders to take part in the war.
There is only one situation in which jihad becomes a personal obligation of each and every Muslim even without an order from the Muslim leadership -- namely when non-Muslims attack Muslims or invade a Muslim country. Osama bin Laden and the adherents of extremist Islam claim that this is the situation today; that Islam is under attack, both physically and ideologically, by the infidels who are invading the lands of Islam -- Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Therefore, they maintain that waging jihad has become a personal obligation incumbent upon all Muslims.
Jihad is closely linked to the concept of self-sacrifice in battle for the sake of Allah (shahada). Shahada means "martyrdom," and any Muslim who is killed in the course of war against non-Muslims is a shahid (martyr). Actively pursuing jihad and seeking a martyr's death (istishhad) is especially laudable.
The Koran does not merely promise the martyr a reward in the world to come; a number of Suras in the Koran contain descriptions of the pleasures of Paradise -- food, drink and beautiful women. The Muslim traditionists and commentators greatly elaborated on these descriptions, providing, for example, details about the physical and spiritual characteristics of the black-eyed virgins of Paradise. Every man who enters Paradise is rewarded with 72 such brides.
The distinction of martyrs, compared to other Muslims, lies primarily in the fact that they are guaranteed the privilege of Paradise: The act of falling in battle for the sake of Allah washes away every violation or sin they have committed during their lives. The shahid enters Paradise immediately, without enduring the "torments of the grave" ('adhab al-qabr), whereas an ordinary Muslim who does not have the privilege of dying as a martyr must wait for the Day of Judgment.
Islamist jihad today has two chief goals, both global. One of these is to wage war against the world's leading infidel power, the U.S., and all of its allies, particularly Israel. The other goal is to topple the evil regimes in the Muslim countries, because their leaders are only outwardly Muslim. It is thus a religious obligation to fight them, depose them, and establish a truly Islamic regime in their place. The ultimate goal of jihad is to impose Islam on the entire world as the only true religion.
Adapted from "Jihad Today," by Menahem Milson (published by MEMRI on December 21, 2007).