Section One: Definition
Literally, “jihad” means “to make an immense struggle”. As one may struggle in a number of issues for various causes, the struggle for Allah and Islam, which Islam concerns itself with, is technically known as “jihad fi sabeeli-llah” (“struggle in the path/cause of Allah”). However, by now in the greater Muslim world, and especially among the common or average Muslims, “jihad” is understood to refer to “jihad fi sabeeli-llah” without it having to be specified.
Even then, there are technically a number of types of jihad. However, in general and across Muslim peoples, jihad by force (“jihad bi-s-sayf”, “jihad by the sword”) is the type that is assumed by default.
As a sidenote: there is another technical term that some use: “qital fi sabeeli-llah” (“fighting or warring in the path/cause of Allah”). This always means armed campaigns whereas jihad may refer to an armed campaign or may not. Nevertheless, the default term for referring to an armed campaign for Islam is “jihad”.
When I was growing up among Muslims here and in Pakistan, there was no ambiguity regarding the definition, meaning, or connotation of “jihad”: it meant holy war, was a good thing, and was an important part of Islam in the past and today. No one disputed these facts. And so this nuancing of what jihad is, is something generally unique in the West and, within the Muslim lands, more or less confined to clerics and other experts or authorities. The people do not get involved in such issues.
This may or may not be an important point. Even though I attended a Catholic school in Pakistan, Islamic studies was mandatory for all Muslims (by far the vast majority of the student body). The jihads that spread Islam, especially in South Asia, were taught and discussed with pride. There was little shame in these imperialistic exploits of the Arabs, as it was seen as bringing salvation to lost peoples and as fulfilling Allah’s mandate.
The last point is also crucial: in Islam, Allah has mandated that the Muslims must struggle to conquer all lands and people so as to impose the rules and authorities of the Muslims. The laws and rules were given by Allah to the Muslims for the whole world, and as his servants Muslims are entitled to rule all lands and peoples. Those who refuse to embrace Islam may be permitted to practice their errors but only in an environment where they are constantly reminded of their inferiority to the Muslims.
Contrary to some, this is not an exercise in freedom of religion. This is a subtle effort to convert the infidels to Islam without violence, to strongly control those who persist in their rebellion against Islam, and to severely hinder the infidels’ religion’s growth and prosperity. (Some of the central regulations imposed on the infidels were that they could not repair any place of worship that fell into disrepair, they could not erect new places of worship, and they were forbidden to allow the sounds of their worship to go out of their places of worship.) And it seems to have worked remarkably well: consider the very small number of Christians left in the lands the Muslims conquered, lands that before their conquest by Muslims were vibrant areas of Christian activity.