Addressing Misconceptions: Jihad and Martyrdom

The topic of jihad has always been contentious and taboo due to the misuse of the word by both the mainstream media and Islamist militants alike. But, what does jihad really mean?
by Muslim.Sg 2023-09-11 • 24 min read
Muslim.Sg is a Muslim lifestyle platform that aims to deepen your understanding of faith, in collaboration with the Asatizah Youth Network (AYN). We are part of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).
2023-09-11 • 24 min read

Jihad, religious violence, Islamic terrorism

After the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the world moved its attention to what was deemed as the global war on terror, particularly against the extremist network Al-Qaeda. The unfortunate event not only spiralled the world into a state of alarm against terrorist attacks but also caused many misconceptions about Islam, particularly regarding the idea of jihad. The word jihadism, for example, is often associated with the ideological beliefs of militant Islamist movements.[1]

Unfortunately, the term jihad is not only misconstrued by mainstream media but also by some Muslims today.

Read: Muslim SG | How Does Social Media Influence Online Radicalisation?

So what is jihad? Does jihad mean an Islamic or holy war? Are we obligated to take up arms when someone calls for people to join jihad? Is jihad the only way to achieve martyrdom? 

What is Jihad?

A simple look at the modern English dictionary on the word jihad will directly bring you to the idea of a holy war or a military struggle against the infidels or unbelievers.[2]

Regrettably, this can be the first point of reference for many looking for answers about Islam.

Jihad meaning, what is jihad, matyrdom

The root term for jihad is - juhd - which means making an ‘effort’ or ‘struggle’. In essence, jihad is to strive and exhaust your capacity and capabilities with your words or actions. This is far from the Arabic meaning of war (harb) and military combat (qital). In other words, military combat is not the essence of jihad.[3] 

Read: MuslimSG | What is Jihad?

This idea of ‘struggle’ is expressed in different aspects of human life. On the individual level, jihad is to struggle to develop the self and to leave behind what is wrong. This is mentioned in the hadith of the Prophet s.a.w:

الْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ

“The one who strives (mujahid) is he who strives against his soul.”

(Sunan At-Tirmizi)

At the societal level, it is to develop collectively in building a nation or a country that prospers and protects itself from threats or harm. A recent example we can all relate to is the national struggle against the Covid-19 Pandemic. Each of us played an important role in preventing the disease from further infecting the public.

Masjid, Closure, Covid-19, Jihad, prevent spread, virus

Read: Muslim SG | Adapt to new norms to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak

Another kind of struggle is when it involves military threats. This is where jihad can manifest in the form of military struggle. The purpose of military jihad is:[4]

1. Self-defence and fighting back against aggression,

2. Alleviating religious persecution and establishing freedom of religion so that people may have the opportunity to think freely and practise their religious convictions.

In other words, military jihad is essentially a ‘just war’ in Islam.[5] In his book ‘A Thinking Persons Guide to Islam: The Essence of Islam in Twelve Verses from the Quran’, H.R.H Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, Prince of Jordan and professor in Islamic philosophy, outlined the conditions of a 'just war' to include those being wronged or attacked first, expelled from one's home and land (Al-Hajj, 22:39-40), aggression and breaking peace treaties (Al-Tawbah, 9:13) and being severely persecuted merely for belief in God, to name a few.[6] Religious conquest and conversion are not substantial reasons for military jihad.

In the current world, international peace is the norm and is supported by universal treaties. This means the only jihad possible is that of a 'just' defensive war.[7] 

A 'just war' does not imply a mere violent struggle, brutal killings or outright aggression. On the contrary, Shaykh Usama Al-Sayyid Al-Azhari,[8] explains that the spirit of jihad is a lofty matter which manifests in diverse forms. Jihad is motivated and strongly linked to the higher objectives of the sacred law (Maqasid Shariah); specifically in achieving guidance and preserving the sanctity of life, not destroying it.[9] He explains further that this is why those who undertake a truly 'just war' are commanded not to cut a tree, kill a goat, or frighten a monk or a worshipper in their places of worship.[10]

Hence, at its core, jihad is about being a better person, and on the public level, it is about helping your community grow and protect them from threats that would put the community at risk. Here, we are able to identify the different levels of jihad.

While extremist groups would reduce the term jihad to a misguided understanding of a mere war against unbelievers, the former - jihad with the self, is considered the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar). This means that true military jihad, although praiseworthy in times of need, is considered lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar).

It is really important for Muslims to reclaim this term and understand jihad for what it is. 

Is jihad a pillar of Islam?

Another misconception extremist groups hold on to is that jihad is considered a pillar of Islam. This belief means that every Muslim from all over the world is obligated to take up military jihad. They believe that jihad is an objective in and of itself.[11]

One possible narration that could cause this misconception is a hadith narrated by Mu’az ibn Jabal r.a. Rasulullah s.a.w. said:

رَأْسُ الْأَمْرِ الْإِسْلَامُ وَعَمُودُهُ الصَّلَاةُ وَذِرْوَةُ سَنَامِهِ الْجِهَادُ

“The arch of all matters is Islam, its pillar is the prayer, and jihad is its peak.” 

(Sunan At-Tirmizi)

Ibn Rajab comments that while jihad is the peak of Islam, it is not a pillar of Islam.[12] Hence, it is not an individual obligation. This hadith shows the lofty station of jihad. It is a means to achieve closeness with Allah s.w.t. Like many other lofty acts of worship, there are times when jihad can be considered necessary, and there are times when it is prohibited to act upon, depending on the causes and conditions of the situation. There are times when jihad can be considered the loftiest of deeds, and there are times when it is not.[13]

This hadith is not a blanket statement to show that jihad is the highest of objectives above other acts of worship. So what are the deeds that are certain to be loftier than jihad? Is there even any?

Good deeds, praying, Jihad, Masjid, greater jihad

Ibn Al-Qayyim enlightens us on this matter in his book, Madarijus-Salikin:[14]

“The most excellent deed in all times and situations is (any deed) that pleases Allah s.w.t. the most, in that (particular) time and situation, and to fulfil the obligations of that time and all of its requirements''

There are indeed many deeds we can observe in different kinds of situations. When the companions of the Prophet s.a.w. asked him about ‘the best deeds’, he answered differently to each questioner r.a. The Prophet s.a.w. was very observant of the different situations and conditions of the questioners who approached him and considered it seriously in his answers.

Read: Muslim SG | What is Fiqh Awlawiyyat? (Fiqh of Priorities)

In general, military jihad is a communal obligation (fard al-kifayah), according to the majority of scholars, and unlike the pillars (of Islam), it is not an individual obligation.[15] Only a certain number of capable people are called up to defend the nation when its security demands it. The rest are not obligated to do so.

Obligation, struggle, serve, country, Islam, Jihad, protect

Read: Muslim SG | 4 Advice from Imam Al-Ghazali on worship

To summarise, jihad is a means and not an objective. There some situations where the objective is met without the means of jihad. Amongst many, the objectives are to ward off oppression and evil and preserve the community,[16] to protect life and achieve guidance.[17]

The relationship between jihad and armed struggle is not specific. For what is in fact specified is that which helps achieve the higher objectives, which at times could mean abandoning armed struggle.[18]

Is the call to jihad obligatory?

Militant Islamists and terrorists call for jihad by encouraging the Muslim population worldwide to denounce their local governments and return to their misguided understanding of shariah as a guiding principle in the political sphere. This gives a sense of purpose to those who are frustrated with the conditions of the ummah such as poverty and would like to exact revenge against those who attacked Muslim countries and Muslims in general.[19] 

Read: Muslim SG | Preserving The Sanctity of The Sharia

These recruitment methods often prey on vulnerable individuals who involve more in online engagements.[20] This begs the question - who has the jurisdiction to issue a legitimate call to jihad? Or is it a military commitment which a person can participate individually? 

Online indoctrination, Jihad, jihad, islamist militants, terrorism, radicalisation

Unlike most acts of worship like solat (prayer) or giving charity (sadaqah) which can be observed based on the individual capacity of the person, jihad, in the military sense, can only be observed through a legitimate authority. 

In the classical works of governance in Islam, the call to jihad must be made by the head of state, Amirul Mu’minin (leader of the believers), as termed in the past. It can also be made by a non-Muslim head of state, as someone with authority to command citizens to take up arms and defend the country from foreign military threats.

In fact, this is not a modern dilemma. When the Negus (Najashi) of Abyssinia’s kingdom was threatened, some companions who lived under the Christian King,  including Zubayr Ibn ‘Awwam r.a, participated in the military battle to defend the country together with the citizens of the non-Muslim majority.[21]

Thus, Muslims are not only bound by the social contract to protect the homeland but are also religiously demanded to adhere to it. This includes denouncing any non-legitimate call for jihad online or from a distant land.

Read: MuslimSG | What Do You Do When You Hear The Call To Jihad

We need to look at our own context and situation. Military jihad is not the only form of jihad. There are other ways to strive and struggle for excellence. Even when there was a just war during the Prophet’s time, not all companions were called up to observe it. In a hadith narrated by Abdullah ibn ‘Amr r.a:

جَاءَ رَجُلٌ إلى النبيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عليه وسلَّمَ، فَاسْتَأْذَنَهُ في الجِهَادِ، فَقَالَ: أحَيٌّ والِدَاكَ؟، قَالَ: نَعَمْ، قَالَ: فَفِيهِما فَجَاهِدْ.

A man came to the Prophet s.a.w. asking his permission to take part in jihad. The Prophet s.a.w. asked him, “Are your parents alive?” He replied, “yes”. The Prophet s.a.w. said to him, “Then exert yourself in their service.” 

(Sahih Al-Bukhari)

Therefore, Muslims must recognise their respective realities and focus on what demands their attention to strive for. There are many avenues to do good, such as purifying oneself from their ego and protecting their families from harm. We should not limit ourselves to one specific act that is not possibly substantiated in our context.

Jihad, helping, community, Islam, giving, strive, goodness

Islam and Martyrdom

While we already know that some extremist groups take jihad as an objective, there are also those who see it as a means for martyrdom. Is it okay to seek martyrdom through jihad? What could possibly be wrong with that?

First, let us look at martyrdom in Islam. A martyr (ash-shaheed) is the ultimate sacrifice someone would make to save a life for the sake of Allah s.w.t. It is indeed a lofty position in Islam. Allah s.w.t. praises those who are martyred with the rewards of bypassing trials and tribulations in the grave and residing in the highest levels of Paradise (Jannah).[22] 

The Quran highlights that the lives of martyrs continue even in death: 

وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا۟ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَٰتًا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ

“Never think of those martyred in the cause of Allah as dead. In fact, they are alive with their Lord, well provided for—”  

(Surah Ali ‘Imran, 3:169)

However, contrary to what many would probably think, martyrdom in Islam is not only about dying in a battle. Those who die unjustly or whose lives are taken by illnesses are also martyrs. 

For example, people who die from childbirth, an illness or plague, or those who die in a tragedy such as a plane crash or in a hostage situation in a terrorist attack are considered martyrs as well.

Jihad, childbirth, mother, pregnant, martyrdom, save life

It was narrated from 'Uqbah bin 'Amir r.a. that the Prophet s.a.w. said:

‏ خَمْسٌ مَنْ قُبِضَ فِي شَىْءٍ مِنْهُنَّ فَهُوَ شَهِيدٌ الْمَقْتُولُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ شَهِيدٌ وَالْغَرِقُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ شَهِيدٌ وَالْمَبْطُونُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ شَهِيدٌ وَالْمَطْعُونُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ شَهِيدٌ وَالنُّفَسَاءُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ شَهِيدٌ‏

"There are five things, whoever dies of any of them is a martyr. The one who is killed in the cause of Allah is a martyr; the one who dies of an abdominal complaint in the cause of Allah is a martyr; the one who dies of the plague in the cause of Allah is a martyr; and the woman who dies in childbirth in the cause of Allah is a martyr." 

(Sunan An-Nasa’i)

There is no denying that achieving martyrdom is a great reward for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. There is also no denying the role of martyrdom as a means to achieve the virtuous objectives of Islam and to ward off evil. What is contradictory to Islam is to position martyrdom as the main objective without considering other factors (conditions, means, etc) and other more fundamental objectives of martyrdom.[23]

We should reflect on the conditions of martyrdom. The first condition is the intention (niyyah) itself. In a hadith reported by Abu Hurairah r.a, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w said:

إنَّ أوَّلَ النَّاسِ يُقْضَى يَومَ القِيامَةِ عليه رَجُلٌ اسْتُشْهِدَ، فَأُتِيَ به فَعَرَّفَهُ نِعَمَهُ فَعَرَفَها، قالَ: فَما عَمِلْتَ فيها؟ قالَ: قاتَلْتُ فِيكَ حتَّى اسْتُشْهِدْتُ، قالَ: كَذَبْتَ، ولَكِنَّكَ قاتَلْتَ لأَنْ يُقالَ: جَرِيءٌ، فقَدْ قيلَ، ثُمَّ أُمِرَ به فَسُحِبَ علَى وجْهِهِ حتَّى أُلْقِيَ في النَّارِ  

“The first to be judged on the Day of Resurrection is a man who died as a martyr. He will be brought forth and His favours (he experienced) will be described to him, which he acknowledges. He will then be asked: ‘What did you do with them?’ to which the man will reply: ‘I have fought for your sake until I was killed.’ He (God) will say: ‘You have lied. You fought so that you would be called a bold hero’, and so it was said that he was ordered to be dragged on his face and thrown into the Fire…” 

(Sahih Muslim)

It is true that sincerity is a matter of the heart, and no one but Allah can scrutinise the sincere intentions of another. However, intentions cannot justify a wrong deed.[24] What is seen from these terrorist attacks or extremist movements is contradictory to our religious principles. Many of them carried out their movements to gain martyrdom without considering its application and compliance with the Shariah.[25] - ‘Will this lead to further harm? What are the possible repercussions? Does it meet the intended objectives of the Shariah?’

In fact, if we look at martyrdom as the reward for a certain jihad, the understanding of jihad itself must be clear from misguidance. Many slogans of jihad from militant Islamist movements contradict Islam, as discussed above. Hence, a structure cannot stand without a proper base or footing.

Ultimately, martyrdom is a noble and virtuous position in Islam that should be on the basis of love for Allah s.w.t. and mercy for His creations. It should not be carried out because of hatred, revenge or glory. 

The way forward

As Muslims, we should always refer back to our scholars when in doubt. The Quran mentions:

 فَسْـَٔلُوٓا۟ أَهْلَ ٱلذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ 

“..If you do not know, then ask those who have knowledge.” 

(Surah An-Nahl, 16:43)

Our religious texts are not to be cherry-picked and used to support personal agendas. We should also reflect on ourselves: 

Have we truly understood the realities we are in and have we truly fulfilled our obligations towards those around us on a familial and societal level? These are genuine questions we should ask ourselves.

Read: Muslim SG | Fiqh Al-Waqi': Understanding the context and reality

Jihad, Islam, masjid, Muslim, Singapore, tolerance, moderate

Let us seek knowledge, understand and reclaim the meaning of jihad, and ask our scholars and certified asatizah from Asatizah Youth Network to clarify and clear our doubts on contemporary and dubious issues.

Watch the full video:


[2] Also see

[3] Ghazi Bin Muhammad. A Thinking Person’s Guide to Islam: The Essence of Islam in 12 Verses from the Qur'an. Turath Publishing, London, (pg.230), 2017

[4] Shawki Allam, The Ideological Battlefield: Egypt’s Dar Al-Iftaa Combats Radicalisation, National Library & Archive Press, Cairo

[5] Ghazi Bin Muhammad. A Thinking Person’s Guide To Islam, Turath Publishing, London, (pg.235-237), 2017

[6] ibid

[7] Ghazi Bin Muhammad. A Thinking Person’s Guide to Islam: The Essence of Islam in 12 Verses from the Qur'an. Turath Publishing, London, (pg. 242), 2017

[8] Egyptian scholar Al-Azhar, Senior Fellow of Kalam Research & Media and the Presidential Advisor for Religious Affairs

[9] Usama Al-Sayyid Al-Azhari, The Manifest Truth: A Refutation of Those That Manipulate Islam, Dar Al-Faqih Publication & Distribution, 2017

[10] ibid

[11] ibid


[13] Kritikan Dari Dalam Terhadap Ideologi Al-Qaeda, translated by Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd, (pg. 129), 2012

[14] ibid


[16] Kritikan Dari Dalam Terhadap Ideologi Al-Qaeda, translated by Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd, (pg. 142), 2012

[17] Usama Al-Sayyid Al-Azhari, The Manifest Truth: A Refutation of Those That Manipulate Islam, Dar Al-Faqih Publication & Distribution, 2017

[18] ibid

[19] Muhammad Haniff Hassan. Mobilization of Muslims for Jihad: Insights from the Past and their Relevance Today. International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, (pg.13-14), 2013 


[21] Ali Gomma, النماذج الأربعة من هدي النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم في التعايش مع الأخر, Dar Al-Faruq, 2012

[22] Jonathan Brown. Is Islam a Death Cult? Martyrdom and the American-Muslim Imagination. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, 2017

[23] Kritikan Dari Dalam Terhadap Ideologi Al-Qaeda, translated by Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd, (pg. 159), 2012

[24] The end does not justify the means

[25] Kritikan Dari Dalam Terhadap Ideologi Al-Qaeda, translated by Muhammad Haniff Hassan, Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd, (pg. 160), 2012


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