Whenever someone reads about jihad, one will invariably come across an explanation that includes a differentiation between the greater and lesser jihads.
Basically, this interpretation is based on some saying of some prominent person (and who exactly said it varies according to account) who, upon returning from a war or campaign, remarked that he was returning from the lesser jihad (that is, armed jihad; in Arabic: الجهاد الأصغر, al-jihād al-aSghar) to the greater jihad (that is, spiritual refinement; in Arabic: الجهاد الأكبر, al-jihād al-akbar). Another way to characterize this is to refer to “jihad with the sword” (جهاد بالسيف, jihād bi-s-sayf) and “jihad with the self” (جهاد بالنفس, jihād bi-n-nafs). However, we are presented with a linguistic dilemma. The particle prefix (ب, bi-) can here function as a possessive qualifier, that is: a jihad belonging to the sword or a jihad belonging to the self, or to indicate instrumentality, that is: a jihad fought by using a sword or a jihad fought by using one’s self. Considering both involve the offering of one’s self for the sake of Islam, they are practically synonymous in referring to jihad that is warfare.
In a similar manner, practically every phrase, term, title, or permutation using the word “jihad” can be and is taken to refer to jihad that is warfare. In other words, as far as Islam’s centuries-old literature is concerned, “jihad” refers to offensive warfare for Islam’s sake, even though it may take a number of forms. All of this “lesser jihad” and “greater jihad” and “non-violent jihad” is all nonsense.
Two major points:
- There is no authentic or reliable source for the quote that is used to create this concept of jihad being external and internal. Its authenticity is disputed. Plus, there are far more sayings and quotes that state the exact opposite of the quote in question. One simple example, by Muhammad himself, is that “the gates of Heaven are under the shadow of swords.”
- The literature of Islam pertaining to jihad focuses on jihad as warfare. Sufi manuals and books, and those influenced by the same, may talk about jihad as internal warfare, but this is an innovation and unattested to in the normative or orthodox literature of Islam, including and especially those dealing with Islamic law and practice.
Therefore, let anyone who claims that jihad can be non-offensive (that is, taking a form that does not affect those other than oneself) be aware that one is wrong. Although the jihad to establish Islamism can take non-violent forms (such as propaganda, supplying the fighters, et cetera), no form of jihad (or, at least, no legitimate form of jihad) exists that concerns solely the self. All forms of jihad have the aim to reform and change and conquer those around one.
There does not exist a word in English that can serve as an equivalent to the Arabic word (مجاهد, mujāhid; nominative plural: مجاهدون, mujāhidūn; oblique plural: مجاهدين, mujāhidīn).
Who or what is a mujāhid? I’m glad you asked. It means, literally, one who performs (جهاد, jihād), especially what is termed (جهاد بالسيف, jihād bi-s-sayf, jihad with/by the sword) or (جهاد في سبيل الله, jihād fi sabīlillāh, or jihad in the path of God). This means, in other words, one who fights for God/Islam. And this fighting is not of the spiritual sort but, rather, of the military and armed sort.
Some have taken to calling these people “jihadis”. This is not incorrect or inaccurate: in Arabic (as well as other languages, such as Persian and Urdu), (جهادي, jihādī) means not only “of or pertaining to jihad” but also “supportive of or belonging to jihad”, which can be used to describe the many sorts of people who conduct jihad or support it. But how much of this do the normal people know? To how many would it be a strange word or one devoid of meaning or connotation?
Despite the many parallels drawn between the two, mujāhidūn or jihad-fighters or jihadis are not Crusaders or even like them. Jihad-fighters wage war unprovoked. Or, rather, one’s infidel-hood is sufficient provocation to cause them to wage war. (A completely different issue, of course, is why we in the West continue to condemn the Crusades while failing to condemn or, even worse, overlooking the Islamic/Islamist wars of conquest.)
The round-about descriptive way is to refer to such people as “militant Islamist terrorists” (while their supporters are “militant Islamists” or somesuch). But this becomes a mouthful. But it does preserve an element I believe is key: putting this terrorism issue in the context of Islamism. Terrorism is but a manifestation of Islamism, not the other way around. And yet I fear that using such terms can only open the door for endless symantic debates as well as seeming to be fearful of offending someone. (“Islamo-fascists” is quite more assertive and strident than “militant Islamist terrorist networks et cetera“.)
Of course Arabic would have the perfect word, what with its hundreds of permutations for a single root. Applying its own rules in the same manner, so would Hebrew. But then none of us speak Hebrew, so that would not help us.