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.