Jihad in Islam in the Contemporary World


Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo

In the contemporary world of the Muslims and non-Muslims alike, there appears to be no other religious concept as grossly controversial, misconceived, distorted and misapplied as the subject of Jihad in Islam. As a result, the issues relating to the precept and practice of Jihad and their aggregate impacts on human and cosmic experience and history have continued to occupy a central position in the contemporary socio-religious and political discourse across the various academic and media circles.

Essentially, though, Islam’s theological, jurisprudential and ideological construct of Jihad should have been very clear and simple to grasp: it all begins with the monotheistic belief about God which maintains that the kingdom of heavens and earth belongs to Allah [Quran, 2:256]. This premise therefore establishes for Islam its idealistic agenda of ensuring that, just as it is in heaven, the Word and Order of Allah must as well rule supreme in the world through the agency of mankind, whom the Divine Will appointed as the vicegerent of Allah on earth. Thus, any struggle [jihad] engaged in towards the realization of this supreme agenda is therefore termed in the Islamic theology as ‘Jihad fee sabeel Allah’ i.e. struggle in the way of establishing the supremacy of the Word and Order of Allah in human life and world. [1]

Unfortunately, however, as lucid and simple as this subject appears to be, it is but disheartening noting how it has been made a victim of an appalling, ignorant bigotry and blatant misconceptions and misapplications by the contemporary modern world.  Consequently, from the various cases of the political rebellions and civil wars being championed by the radical extremist Islamists in the Muslim populated Middle-Eastern and African countries, to the recently increasing atrocious incidents of martyrdom operations or suicide terrorism being perpetrated by the self-styled Jihadists Muslims in some American and European countries, we are being offered both ample theoretical and empirical evidences of how the concept and practice of  Jihad have been so corrupted and translated to a quite disturbing phenomenon of socio-religious terrorism and barbarism.

Furthermore, it is pertinent to note that, much as it is true that these acts are being perpetrated by just a few ignorant, unscrupulous and bigoted elements within the global Muslim world of over 1.8 billion demography, it is equally true that, contrary to their claim of rendering services to the Islamic religion, their radical and barbaric teachings and atrocious terroristic acts have achieved nothing rather than profaning the sacred teaching and image of Islam. No thanks is therefore due to the non-Muslim Western world, the westernized worlds and the international media which, due to the acts of these few elements, have continued in their increasing Islamophobic stereotyping of Islam as a terrorist, barbaric, violent and war-monger religion.

In the light of the foregoing, it is therefore, the thrust of this paper to examine both the ‘how it is’, and ‘how it ought to be’, of the conception and application of Jihad in our contemporary world. This exercise will focus its study on the following broad sub-headings:

  1. The misconceptions and misapplications of Jihad in Islam in the Contemporary World.
  2. Conceptual reconstruction and practical expression of Jihad in Islam in the Contemporary World
  3. The third sub-heading will do the conclusion.

Jihad in Islam in the Contemporary World: Misconceptions and Misapplications

Radical Jihadist Conceptions and Expressions of Jihad

The belief and practice of converting the whole humanity and establishment of Islamic states in the world through the use of force and violence is a deep-rooted and widespread agenda in the contemporary mainstream Muslim world. Muhammad Abdussalam Faraj, citing authority of the medieval Muslim scholar, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, declared that: “the saying of the Prophet: “I have been sent with the sword”, means that Allah sent him for the call of Tawheed of Allaah by the sword after his call for it by evidence. Sowhoever does not accept the call of tawheed (the Oneness of Allaah)by the Quran, evidence and eloquence, he will be called by thesword.” Similarly, Abul Ala Maududi insists that ‘Anyone who wants to uproot mischief and disorder from the world and wants to reform mankind should realize that he cannot do so by mere sermonizing and counseling. It is useless. He should rise against the government of false principles; he should seize power, remove the wrongdoers from authority and set up a government based on sound principles and just administration.’ Again, he declared that ‘If their Islamic state has power and resources it will fight and destroy non-Islamic government and establish Islamic states in their place.’ [2]

It is pertinent to note, however, that, the contemporary violent militaristic expressions of Jihad in Islam in the 21st century had begun to acquire its proportional phenomenon right from the 19th, through the 20th, to the 21st Centuries. It is believed this has come to be, partly, due to the cumulative impacts of the medieval Muslims’ conceptions and historical expressions of the combative Jihad; and largely, as a direct consequent of, and reaction against, the then surging Western global imperialist and colonialist domination over the entire Muslim world, and as well as the contemporary globalization of the Western civilization and their economic and political hegemony in the world. Many among the mainstream Muslims conceived and interpreted these developments as an assault, not just against the Muslim world’s socio-political and economic existence, but that of Islam itself. Hence, using Islam as their reason, and by re-interpreting the traditional references on Jihad to provide justification for their conception of a radically violent and coercive Jihadism, many Muslim individuals, groups and governments have been giving practical expressions to this radical Jihadist concept by forcing, terrorizing and killing anyone who would not accept their offer of Islam or agree with their Islamic persuasions and coercive establishment of Islamic religion and states in the world.

Similarly, the recent various Arab uprisings witnessed in Tunisia [2010], Egypt [2011-14], Libya [2011], Yemen [2011], Bahrain [2012], as well as the perennial Somalia’s Al-Shabab rebellion, the protracted Syrian civil war [2012- till date] and the Boko Haram insurgence in Nigeria etc., should also be attributed to the impact of such radical and violent Jihadist conceptions like the Maududian Jihadist principle of ‘rising against the government of false principle and of seizing power’. This also explains why, as we can see today, asides the numerous perennial internal strive within the respective Muslim countries, there remain only few, if any, among the typical Muslim countries that have not fought with each other in the recent decades. Iran had fought with Iraq (September, 1980-August, 1988). Libya had warred with Egypt (July, 1977). Similarly, the world had witnessed Saudi-Yemen war (1934) as well as that of Iraq-Kuwait in the last decades of the 20th century. The list is a long one!

Extremist-Jihadists’ Radical Conception of Martyrdom in Islam

Another Jihad-related issue is that of Islamic martyrdom which has been conceptually and practically reduced to the level of a mere suicide terrorism through some extremist re-interpretations and radical applications. Observably, as numerous recent events have shown,  whether it was the thousands of young Iranian boys in the Bassidj organization who sacrificed themselves during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s, the Shia militants in Islamic Jihad that  bombed the U.S. embassy and French barracks in Beirut in 1983, the Hezbollah attacks against Israel targets in southern Lebanon in the 1980s, the 9/11 hijackers flying commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, or during the last five years frequent reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Muslims across the world are committing suicide to attack their perceived enemy and become martyrs for their cause. In the same vein, of particular note are the ongoing bloodshed resulting from the protracted Syrian civil war cum ISIS’s militancy, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and as well as Boko Haram’s guerrilla war and suicide bombings in the North-East Nigeria. Every case of death resulting from the brutalities perpetrated by each of these bodies is being erroneously regarded as representing true Islamic martyrdom that guarantees paradise to the violent Jihadists. [3]

Jihad in Islam in the Contemporary World: Conceptual Reconstruction and Practical Expressions

 A Reconstruction of the Islamic Concept of Jihad

As Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad starkly declared, the philosophy and true nature of Jihad is a matter both complex and subtle. Grave errors have been made both in our age and in the middle age [of Islam] because people failed to understand the subject. [4] For this reason, we are therefore required by the exigencies of the Islamic faith and the contemporary world to embark on an objective study of what represents the basic and true Islamic concept of Jihad.

Jihad – Holy War extremism against infidels. Word cloud sign.

Literally, according to Malik Ghulam Fareed’s Dictionary of the Holy Quran, Jihad is derived from jahd and juhd which denote to strive or toil; to exert one’s power or ability; to employ oneself vigorously or diligently; to take extraordinary pains in such an affair; to do one’s utmost or use one’s power in prosecuting ones affairs so that one was tired by it; to exert one utmost power or ability in contending with an object of one’s disapprobation. [5] Similarly, in his Mufradaat al-Quran, the medieval Muslim Quranic lexicographer, al-Imam Raghib al-Isfahani, as cited by Nadhir Ahmad Mubashir as-Sayalukuti, explained that the two words: jihad and mujahadah, connote an utmost exertion of power in defense against the enemy. He elaborated further that this is of three kinds, namely struggle against a visible enemy, the devil, the devil and one’s self, all of which are included in the term as used in several places in the Holy Quran i.e. “And strive in the cause of Allah as it behooves you to strive for it.” [Quran, 22:79] [6]

Classification of Jihad

A deep assessment of both the Quranic and prophetic conceptualization of Jihad reveals an interesting classification of Jihad which are: one, al-Jihad al-Akbar [the greater striving]; two, al-Jihad al-Kabeer [the great striving]; and al-Jihad al-Asghar [the lesser striving]. Here, we shall explore their realities in a descending order.

[a] Al-Jihad al-Akbar – The Greater Striving

This is the foremost type of Jihad. It consists of all spectrums of Godly and righteous thoughts, speeches and actions inculcated for the purpose of actualizing personal and societal moral and spiritual reformation, wellbeing and progress.

Scriptural and Traditional references to the various aspects of this type of true Islamic Jihad can be found in the various Quranic and Prophetic injunctions, among which are:  “Strive with your property and your persons in the cause of Allah,” [Quran, 9: 41]. Muhammad [saw], the Holy Prophet of Islam, said: “Strive against your canal desires much as you strive against your visible enemies,” [Al-Mufradat Fee Ghareeb al-Quran]. “The best Jihad is for a man to strive against his mortal self and whims and caprices,” [Al-Fath al-Kabir]. “Seeking lawful earnings is Jihad,” [Al-Fath al-Kabir]. “It is not the best Jihad for a man to strike with his sword in the cause of Allah, rather, true Jihad is achieved through the caring and loving services a man renders to his parents and children. And whoever lives with himself, restricting it from harming the rest of mankind, then such has actually involved in the practice of true Jihad,” [Al-Fath al-Kabir]. “Abdullah bin Amr narrated that a man came to the Holy Prophet [saw], seeking his permission to engage in military Jihad. The Holy Prophet [saw] asked him: “Are your parents alive?” The man replied, “Yes.” Then, the Holy Prophet [saw] instructed, “Go and render a Jihad of humanitarian services to them,” [Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari]. “Tariq bn Shihab narrated that, ‘While the Prophet of Allah [saw] was setting forth on a journey and putting his foot in the stirrup, a person enquired of him which form of Jihad was the best, he said, “The word of truth to a wrong-doing ruler,” [An-Nisaai] In another version, he [saw] said, “The word of justice to a tyrant ruler.” [Ibn Majah]. [7]

From the foregoing, it is obvious that al-Jihad al-Akbar consists of an array of moral imperatives that include: the conscious, conscientious and vigorous life-time struggle for self-purification against one’s baser and canal desires and satanic inclinations with the view to weaning oneself from the sway of Satan. More so, they include the dutiful and caring acts to parents and families; the pursuance of exclusively lawful means of sustenance; the financial and personal sacrifices in the cause of Allah; the civilized and peaceful activism or advocacy for justice and truth; the faithful and religious practical application of the commandments of the Islamic Sharia; and, particularly, in the context of our contemporary exigencies, the Jihad of the humanitarian services, such as those being rendered by the various contemporary international humanitarian organizations, like the Humanity First International, which is the humanitarian organ of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Red Crescent, and so on.

 [b] Al-Jihad al-Kabeer – The Great Striving

Regarding this type of Jihad, the Holy Quran categorically declares thus, “If We had pleased, We could have surely raised a Warner in every city. So obey not the disbelievers and strive against them with it [the Quran] a great striving.” [Quran, 25: 5253]

Essentially, this Quranic verses offer clear textual injunction to Muslims to use the Quran to peacefully preach against, confront, resist, subsume and subvert all the atheistic, agnostic and unbelievers’ world orders, principles and ideologies, and to convert mankind to Islam. They clearly stipulate that the Quran should be effectively and efficiently employed to accomplish all religious preaching, admonition and sermonizing [Tabligh or Da’wah] through such peaceful, but impactful, proselytizing approaches and methodologies which should include, but not limited to, Jihad of the pen [i.e. Writing and publishing Islamic religious books, leaflets, pamphlets and handbills etc]; and the Jihad of the media, both conventional [print and broadcast], and the New Media [Internet, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram etc] as tremendously afforded by the contemporary postmodern human scientific and technological advancements. And in the context of the contemporary anti-Islamic elements that have been, very widely and powerfully, employing intellectual and psychological warfare against Islam through the use of the pen and the mass media, there could be no better, viable and justifiable means to confront and subvert their efforts except by using the same means, too.

Indeed, Quran stipulates that the civilized guiding principle for all Muslim preaching enterprises must always be inspired by, and according to the letter and spirit of the Quranic dictum: “Call unto the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly admonition and argue with them with that which is best.” [Quran, 16:126]

[c] Al-Jihad al-Asghar – The Lesser Striving

This type of Jihad legitimizes and consents Muslims to engage in military or combative Jihad for some specific purposes under some certain anti-Islamic circumstances the details of which shall be assessed as we proceed. It has been particularly termed ‘the lesser striving’ [al-Jihad al-Asghar] by the Holy Prophet Muhammad [saw] himself. This is contained in the Hadith which reported thus: The Prophet of Allah [saw] sent out a troop and at their return, he addressed them saying, “Welcome to a people who have accomplished a lesser Jihad and now having a greater Jihad upon them.” They enquired: “Which one is the greater Jihad, O Messenger of Allah? He responded: “It is the striving against one’s baser self.” [8]

The emphasis on the principle that the combative Jihad is legalized and justified only for some specific purposes under certain circumstances is based on the fact that, as Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad [as] rationalizes, “The Holy Quran clearly forbids the use of force for the spread of the faith and directs its propagation through its inherent qualities and good example of the Muslims. It maintains that people should not be misled by the notion that in the beginning the Muslims were commanded to take up the sword. That sword was not taken up for the spread of the faith, but in self-defense against the enemies of Islam and for the purpose of establishing peace and security. It was no part of the purpose of taking it up to have recourse to coercion in the matter of faith. [9]

In fact, almost 1,400 years before the promulgation of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes freedom of religion and conscience as a fundamental right of our human species, the Holy Quran has, via the first Madinite chapter al-Baqarah, promulgated its clearest verdict on the issue, declaring that: “There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong..” [Quran, 2:257]. Again, according to this thought, as Hadrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad maintains, the “Surah Al-kafirun, revealed in the early period of the Prophet’s [saw] ministry, is a direct statement of policy on the subject of freedom of conscience. The Prophet [saw] was asked to tell unbelievers there was absolutely no meeting-point between their way of life and his. As they were in complete disagreement, not only with regard to the basic concepts of religion, but also with regard to its details and other aspects, there could not possibly be any compromise between them. Hence, ‘For you, your religion, for me, my religion,’ [Quran, 109:7]. [10] Similarly, the Quran commanded that: “And say, ‘It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve,’ [Quran, 18:30]. These most civilized and peaceful Quranic teachings do not only very clearly enshrine and grant mankind the right to freedom of religion and conscience, but also condemn and prohibit every Muslim individual, group and government from engaging in coercive conversion of mankind to Islam.

Moving forward, therefore, it should be stated that the first commandment that sanctions Muslims’ engagement in combative Jihad to defend Islam and themselves against the offensive religious wars being waged by their persecutors and opponents is given in the verse 45th of Surah al-Hajj, chapter 22nd of the Holy Quran thus: “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged – and Allah indeed has power to help them – Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated….” 

Commenting on the above verse, Bernard K. Freamon opines: “This verse is the genesis of the concept of the military jihad. It clearly offers normative justification to Muslims for waging war in the exercise of the collective right to self-defense and it brings the Islamic conception of defensive war into close alignment with traditional Western “Just War” doctrine.” [11]

Furthermore, in the light of the rationales clearly articulated by this verse, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad succinctly concludes that wars in Islam fall under three categories:

  1. Defensive war – war by way of self-protection;
  2. Punitive war – blood for blood;
  3. War to establish freedom – to break the hold of those who kill converts to Islam.[12]

Similarly, leveraging on the context of this same Quranic verse 45th of the Surah al-Hajj, Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, in his legal magnum corpus titled Muslim Conduct of State, also traced both the backgrounds and the rationales behind each of the wars the Holy Prophet engaged in. He succinctly elaborates: This refers to the Prophet and other Muslims who had taken refuge in Madinah and were still being harassed by the Meccans in many ways. They addressed, for instance, an ultimatum to a Madinite magnate ‘Abdullah ibn Ubaiy, either to fight and kill or expel the Prophet, or they would attack Madinah. Many Traditions bear witness to the fact that in the early days after the migration of the Prophet, the Muslim community of Madinah lived such a precarious life that they used to sleep in full war-kit. Another instance is provided by the expedition against Dumatul-Jandal in the year 5H., where the local chieftain, Ukaidir, was molesting the caravans going from the north to Madinah. The attack on Khaibar is an instance of nipping war in the bud. The battles of Uhud and Khandaq were defensive. Hunain was preventive even as that of Banul-Mustaliq. The attack on Ta’if was the continuation of the battle of Hunain. Badr was for reprisal.” [13]

From the forgoing, it has been shown that the only types of war which Muslims are permitted to engage in are those that are defensive, preventive, reprisal and punitive; never has any offensive war meant for spreading Islam or establishing an Islamic state ever been permitted and justified for the Muslims.

The Combative Jihad is a Conditional Warfare

From the assessment so far made, it has become crystal clear that the type of Jihad that is combative or military is fundamentally subject to and restricted by the circumstantial conditions which when available, it becomes mandatory, but, when otherwise, then, it is strictly proscribed. The basic condition is that the offensive must have been launched first by the enemy, and, must have been waged as a religious war with the aim of destroying Islam and subverting the Muslims from exercising their human right to freedom of religion.

It is in this context that David Bryan Cook opines that, jihad, despite the way it is commonly portrayed in the media (and in the colloquial usage), is not an unrestricted form of warfare. The basic goal of jihad is to raise the Word of God to the highest, and in order to accomplish this, jihad must be qualitatively different from other forms of warfare. Goals such as fame and wealth are enough to disqualify the Muslim from waging true jihad, and the fighter is encouraged to examine his own intentions in order to make certain that when he fights he is fighting with the purest intentions. Muslim religious literature is full of descriptions of jihad and includes a number of boundaries that must be observed in order for the warfare to be jihad and for the martyr to be granted the title of shahid. These boundaries include the process of declaring war, as well as making certain that the enemy knows what the war is about and under what terms it can be concluded. Other boundaries include fighting only combatants, making certain that specific implements of mass slaughter are avoided in battle and ensuring that the captives taken during the campaign are treated humanely. [14]

At this juncture, it is instructive to note that when one evaluates the context of the forgoing study in the light of the contemporary conditions where all the intra and inter-state wars and conflicts which dominate the contemporary Muslim countries are not consequent upon denial of religious freedom or as result of religious persecutions by the anti-Islamic forces, rather, have practically been based on such causes like political power struggles etc, one feel confident to maintain that those rebellions, civil uprisings and wars and insurgences are extremely farther from what could be described as true Islamic Jihad in practice. Ditto to all such terrorist activities and atrocities being increasing inflicted upon innocent and non-combatant civilians in our contemporary world. They are rather misrepresentations of what Islam represents: peace.  This is because, as Mirza Ghulam Ahmad [as] succinctly declares, as “the conditions for the Jihad with the sword do not currently exist, the Jihad with the sword is not permissible these days.” [15] And, again, it is because, as Hadrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad beautifully maintains, “swords can win territories but not hearts. Force can bend heads but not minds.” [16]


Islam is a world order constructed upon the intrinsic principles of peace, love, compassion and universal moral values. It is constructive; not destructive. It is love for all; hatred for none. As a religion of peace, it considers it an anathema that peace be preached and established in the world through the instrumentality of war, force and coercion. It believes that the beauty, simplicity and humaneness of its theological, jurisprudential and ideological teachings and all the logic, reason and rationality that underpinned them, on the one hand, and the good moral demonstrations by the Muslims, on the other hand, should be captivating enough to convince and convert the hardest hearts of men to becoming subservient to the world order of Allah and worshiper of his Ultimate God. Only peaceful means can be used to reform our human’s corrupt life and world.  


  1. Omotayo, Al-Hafiz Yunus, Martyrdom in Islam – A Brief Conceptual Clarification, [2017] Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria, http://nigeriamuslimwriters.org/martyrdom-in-islam-a-brief-conceptual-clarification/ date accessed: 23/3/2018
  2. Omotayo, Al-Hafiz Yunus, Misconceptions and Misinterpretations of Islam in the Modern Era, in: An-Nasr, Majlis Ansarullah, Silsila ‘Aliya, Ahmadiyya Nigeria, February 2018, vol. 16, No. 1, p. 18
  3. Omotayo, Al-Hafiz Yunus, Martyrdom in Islam, Op. Cit.
  4. Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam, The British Government and Jihad, [2006], Islam International Publications Ltd, UK, p. 3
  5. Malik Ghulam Fareed, Dictionary of the Holy Quran, [2009], Islam International Publication, UK, p. 150
  6. Sialkoti, Al-Haj Nazir Ahmad Mubashir, al-Qaul as-Sareeh fee Zuhoor al-Masih al-Mau’ood, [Second Edition, 2014], Islam International Publications Ltd, UK, p. 70
  7. Ibid, p. 71-72
  8. Muhammad bin Yaqub al-Kulain, Al-Kaafi, narrated by Abi Abdullah
  9. Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam, Sitarah Qaisariyah, Ruhani Khazain, vol 15, p. 120-121
  10.  Ahmad, Mirza Tahir, Murder in the Name of Allah, [1990], Lutterworth Press, UK, 49
  11.  Freamon, Bernard K., Martyrdom, Suicide, and the Islamic Law of War,  p.302
  12.  Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam, Jesus in India, Islam International Publications Ltd, Nigeria, 2006,p.11 
  13.  Muhammad Hamidullah, Muslim Conduct of State, 1977, Muhammad Ashraf, Pakistan, p.168
  14.  Cook, David Bryan, Radical Islam and Martyrdom Operations: What should the United States Do?, 2004, The James A. Baker 111 Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, p. 2-3
  15.   Ahmad, Mirza Ghulam, Haqiqatul Mahdi, p. 19; vide Mirza Tahir Ahmad’s True Islamic Concept of Jihad, [2006] Islam International Publications Ltd, UK, P. 12
  16. Ahmad, Mirza Tahir, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, [1997], Islam International Publications Ltd, UK, p. 31

About the Writer:

Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo is a Missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Nigeria, National Secretary of the Muslim Writers’ Guild of Nigeria, and correspondent of The Truth Newspaper.



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