“Jihad” appears to have become the scariest word in the world these days. This month, Muslim activist Linda Sarsour used the word in a lecture — expressing her hope that God accepts the efforts of Muslims to peacefully resist anti-Muslim discrimination in the United States as a form of jihad.
The Internet went ablaze with fury, with critics fear-mongering that “Sarsour calls for jihad against Trump.” These responses grossly distort not only what she said, but also what “jihad” actually means.
Contrary to what extremists and anti-Muslim personalities claim, the word “jihad” does not mean “to wage holy war,” or “to kill the infidel,” or “to commit terrorism.” The word “jihad” means “to struggle.” The prophet Muhammad said the best jihad was to speak words of truth “in front of a tyrannical leader” — and this is what Sarsour clearly referenced in her lecture. Not violence. Not terrorism. Indeed, the only two groups who claim “jihad = Terrorism” are Islamic State terrorists and Islamophobes with an agenda. Both are ignorant of Islam and serve only one another.
The Koran describes three types of jihad (struggles), and zero of them mean or permit terrorism. These are: the jihad against yourself, the jihad against Satan — which are called the greater jihads — and the jihad against an open enemy — known as the lesser jihad. Prophet Muhammad explained this upon returning from battle: “We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” This jihad against yourself manifests in many ways. For example, getting your college education is the greater jihad. Quitting smoking, losing weight, beating cancer, learning a skill, parenting, even “adulting” are all forms of the greater jihad. Thus, the first and greatest form of jihad in Islam is the jihad to improve yourself and to improve all humanity.
The second jihad is the jihad against Satan. This is the jihad to preach the word of God through the Koran, through scholarship and through dialogue. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Messiah and founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, coined this as the “jihad of the pen” in the late 19th century. He condemned those Muslim clerics who claimed Islam should be spread by force, writing in 1902, “No true Muslim has ever believed that Islam should be spread by the sword.” Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, teaches that Satan misleads and promotes fear and hate. He distorts the truth to create violence. This second jihad pushes back with knowledge, truth and love.