What is Jihad?

De-traumatising Jihad
by Ustaz Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah 2022-09-12 • 18 min read
Ustaz Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Sudiman was a graduate of Al-Azhar University. He has been a member of the Muis Appeal Board since 2014 and is currently an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU.
2022-09-12 • 18 min read

Arguably, the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War sensationalised Jihad and, to some degree, the heroic image of Mujahideen[1] in the last millennium.[2] The military engagement had manifested one of Jihad’s many definitions: a war. It also rekindled the battle of ‘good versus evil’ chronicled in many chapters of Islamic history. Although valid, the understanding of Jihad has been religiously understood from that standpoint. That normalcy led to the ignorance of the doctrine’s expansive dimensions, which were rarely observed beyond the realm of the battlefield. 

Owing to the global political architecture surrounding the said war, Jihad was handed a positive image. The West and its allies applauded the Mujahideen for paving the way for the triumph of democracy over communism.
Then came the 9/11 attacks (2001), the 2002 Bali Bombings, the 2004 Madrid Train Bombings, the 2005 London bombings and the list went on. The ‘global war on terror’ took the centre stage, followed by a series of discovery of clandestine activities which was grounded in religious doctrines that ambitioned to change the world order or, at the very least, at the regional level. 

9/11, September11, terrorist attack,

Jihad and Jihadism revisited. Terrorism, brutality, and negative images were attached to the doctrine this time round. This development has since constructed a new narrative that portrays Jihad as purely about killing the non-Muslims, whoever, whenever and wherever they may be.

Read: Addressing Misconceptions: Jihad and Martyrdom

The Unintended Consequence of Ignorance

Islamist terrorists’ behaviour has pushed some people to identify Jihad as the root problem. Such a sentiment could possibly stem from the misunderstanding that frames Jihad, firstly, as always, about fighting and war. Secondly, Jihad is an individual religious obligation (fard ‘ain), drawing a parallel to the five Islamic fundamental rites, e.g., the five daily prayers, the fasting during Ramadan etc. Working on this premise means Muslims must bring other nations under their subjugation. Islam is the only faith on earth. Any deviation would be dealt with by sword.

This misguided interpretation befalls global Muslims, including some Singaporeans. On the one hand, some mosque congregants I spoke to understand Jihad purely as military operations to defend Islam and Muslims and, to some extent, to support the Islamic expansion. However, they acknowledged the relevance is absent in Singapore as people of different faiths are free to practice their beliefs.

On the other hand, at least 27 out of 49 or slightly more than half of the total number of individuals charged under the Internal Security Act (ISA) since 2015, had expressed their readiness to perform Jihad through violent means.[3] My conversations with detained individuals and former detainees in this region further cement the ‘inherent’ violent understanding of Jihad among them. A handful, however, is aware of the different forms of Jihad but prefer the armed struggle in all situations.

ISIS, Misinterpretation, confusion, Islamic State, Jihad, learn

I also had the opportunity to design a number of CVE[4] programmes and was also directly involved in several capacity-building training for several countries in Southeast Asia. The stakeholders were civil servants, volunteers from civil society organisations, prison officers, counsellors, interfaith organisations etc. The training revealed that their understanding of Jihad resembles that of the ISA detainees.

Let us revisit the Quran, the Hadith and the works of our past scholars to uplift our understanding of the doctrine:

Revisiting Jihad

Jihad is derived from the Arabic word jahd (جهد), which means fatigue, or from the word juhd which means effort. Islam views a Mujahid as the one who strives for the cause of Allah and exerts efforts which make him experience fatigue. In essence, it is a strive towards excellence through various means such as physical, intellectual, material, financial, spiritual, and moral.

Jihad, sturggle, effort, spiritual, mental, physical

The notion of armed struggle vis-a-vis Jihad is common among many. The understanding, however, does not always situate it as the preferred option in view of the prevalent context, circumstance, and environment.

For instance, one must make other considerations before launching an armed Jihad. He needs to contemplate its advantages and disadvantages from the Shariah standpoint. He must identify the priorities in practising his religion, for instance, the obligatory rituals (fard) take precedence over the highly encouraged ones (mandub) etc. Correspondingly, the emphasis and application of Jihad are subjective in nature.

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

Armed Jihad is not the default response across all situations. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. gave a variation of answers to different individuals when asked about Jihad. Our past scholars deliberated and defined Jihad in varying forms and levels to suit different people and situations as demonstrated by Ibn Qayyim in his work that captures Prophet Muhammad’s life accounts, Zaad al-Ma’aad (زاد المعاد).

Rereading The Scriptures and The Traditions

I spoke to a former terrorist on Jihad, and he was quick to cite Surah Al-Furqan to substantiate the ‘militancy nature’ of the doctrine:

وَلَوْ شِئْنَا لَبَعَثْنَا فِى كُلِّ قَرْيَةٍ نَّذِيرًا. فَلَا تُطِعِ ٱلْكَـٰفِرِينَ وَجَـٰهِدْهُم بِهِۦ جِهَادًا كَبِيرًا

Had We willed, We could have easily sent a warner to every society. So do not yield to the disbelievers but strive diligently against them with this (Quran)

(Surah Al-Furqan, 25:51-52)

Little did he know that these two verses were revealed in Makkah (Makkiyya). Going by this premise, it is illogical for the Prophet and his followers to engage in warfare at that point of time.


The goal of the Meccan period was to strengthen the faith of the believers through a gradual introduction to the six tenets of Islamic beliefs. In his commentary on the verses in question, Ibn Qayyim maintained that Jihad here refers to the presentation of justification, evidence, explanation, and the advance of (the teachings) of the Quran to the disbelievers.

The argument presented by the individual to me did not stem from a sound understanding of the verse, let alone the knowledge of the science of the Quran or ‘Ulum al-Quran (Sciences of the Quran).

He would be surprised to learn that Ibn Qayyim, despite being falsely associated with the rigid Salafi movement by the extremist community, opined that a gentle speech while engaging a tyrant who strongly rejects the truth is the best form of Jihad. The dialogue between Prophet Musa and Pharaoh in Surah Taha paints a clear picture of this advocation:     

فَقُولَا لَهُۥ قَوْلًا لَّيِّنًا لَّعَلَّهُۥ يَتَذَكَّرُ أَوْ يَخْشَىٰ

Speak to him gently, so perhaps he may be mindful (of Me) or fearful (of My punishment)

(Surah Taha, 20:44)

Another dimension of Jihad could be deciphered from a Hadith that defined a Mujahid as one who struggles from within to obey Allah’s commandment, while a Muhajir is the one who distances himself from His prohibitions.[5] Ibn Qayyim explained that the Hadith underscored the fundamental stage of Jihad, which is to fight evil within oneself (lust and temptation). The question is, how do we go about applying this in life?

Jihad against The Self

1. Imam Ibn Qayyim suggested firstly to uplift our identity by learning Islam. Surely, this has to come from authentic and credible sources. I would also add that as we learn Islam and as part of the process of unlearning our own negatives, we may fall into the same mistake over again despite trying our best to avoid it. These two examples are real Jihad to every Muslim.

Real Jihad, Struggle, effort

Essentially, we must complement our effort by seeking His continuous guidance. Hidaya (guidance) is indeed His, and only Him has the right to bestow it upon whomever he wills. Allah reminded our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. of His right to grant guidance in Surah Al-Qasas:

إِنَّكَ لَا تَهْدِى مَنْ أَحْبَبْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ 

“Indeed, (O Muhammad), you do not guide whom you like but Allah guides whom He wills.”

(Surah Al-Qasas, 28:56)

2. Secondly, is to apply what we have learned by practising it to the best of our knowledge and ability. It is not going to be a smooth sailing journey nor is it perfect all the time. Our determination will be put to test. This is a Jihad too.

3. Thirdly is to share Islamic teachings, especially for those who are seeking. The noble Quran is never short of accounts about the people before us who concealed the truth. The amount of knowledge that they acquired did not benefit anyone nor did it save them from the torment of hellfire. That should serve as a reflection and deterrent. Ponder upon Allah’s word in Surah As-Saff:      

كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَن تَقُولُوا۟ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ

“How despicable it is in the sight of Allah that you say what you do not do!”

(Surah As-Saff: 61:3)

4. Lastly, is to persevere while raising awareness about the message of Islam. At times, we may face challenges to correct a mistake or viral misinformation about Islam, especially if it comes from our closest circles. We know it requires a delicate balancing approach to achieve our goal without severing blood ties. This is another realm of Jihad that necessitates wisdom to complement knowledge. Allah s.w.t. reminded us in Surah An-Nahl:      

ٱدْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِٱلْحِكْمَةِ وَٱلْمَوْعِظَةِ ٱلْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَـٰدِلْهُم بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ

“Invite all to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and kind advice, and only debate with them in the best manner.” 

(Surah An-Nahl: 16:125)

Read: Enjoining Good and Forbidding Wrong

Jihad against satan

Ibn Qayyim identified two domains where the presence of satan is prominent. He also proposed two feasible ways to address this concern. 

The first domain targets the Iman with the objective of weakening its state. More often than not, it casts doubts that could cost our faith. I would take the job market scene during and post-Covid-19 as the closest example. 

Among us or someone we know may have lost their job overnight. This real-life crisis could push people to lose their sense of security and, to a larger extent, stability. I would push even further that it could pose a huge impact to an observant Muslim. “What did I do to deserve this? Why does a good Muslim like me suffer this hardship? When will God’s help be bestowed?” And the questions go on. 

Thus, the crisis doesn't stay within the financial realm. It may provide the avenue for satan to cast doubt over the person’s faith in fate (Qadha & Qadr), unfair treatment and good thoughts to Allah. 

Here, Ibn Qayyim proposed that Jihad can be observed by placing unshaken trust in Allah's work. There are life events that we have no prior knowledge or control over. Hence, our belief in His Qadha and Qadar is being tested, and we should be aware of the malicious instigations made by satan. 

Jihad, learn

I would add that the daily Zikr or supplications could help to ease the troubled mind. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. taught us an excellent supplication in relation to trials in life: 

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الهَمِّ وَالحَزَنِ، وَالعَجزِ وَالكَسَلِ، وَالبُخلِ وَالجُبنِ، وَضَلَعِ الدَّينِ وَغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ

O Allah, I seek refuge in you, from grief and sadness, from weakness and from laziness,
from miserliness and from cowardice, from being overcome by debt and overpowered by men (i.e. others)

(Sahih Al-Bukhari)

Perhaps, we should also ponder upon a verse in Surah Al-Hajj to prepare ourselves for what life could throw at us and how a believer should respond to it: 

وَمِنَ ٱلنَّاسِ مَن يَعْبُدُ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ حَرْفٍۢ فَإِنْ أَصَابَهُۥ خَيْرٌ ٱطْمَأَنَّ بِهِ وَإِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ فِتْنَةٌ ٱنقَلَبَ عَلَىٰ وَجْهِهِۦ خَسِرَ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَٱلْـَٔاخِرَةَ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ ٱلْخُسْرَانُ ٱلْمُبِينُ

"And there are some who worship Allah on the verge (of faith): if they are blessed with something good, they are content with it; but if they are afflicted with a trial, they relapse ˹into disbelief˺, losing this world and the Hereafter. That is (truly) the clearest loss."

(Surah Al-Hajj, 22:11)

Lastly, Ibn Qayyim identified one’s resilience in facing temptations and evils as the other domain frequently exploited by satan. The scholar suggested that emulating patience and perseverance of the people before us is a form of Jihad in this sense. He cited Surah As-Sajdah:      

وَجَعَلْنَا مِنْهُمْ أَئِمَّةًۭ يَهْدُونَ بِأَمْرِنَا لَمَّا صَبَرُوا۟ ۖ وَكَانُوا۟ بِـَٔايَـٰتِنَا يُوقِنُونَ

“We raised from among them leaders, guiding by Our command when they patiently endured and firmly believed in Our signs.”

(Surah As-Sajdah, 32:24)


Unfortunately, the Jihad doctrine has been in a negative light for the longest time due to the illegitimate behaviours of a minority group of Muslims around the world. 

As the ummat wasat or the community of the middle path, as described by the Quran, we must take ownership to correct this grave confusion from all corners. We have to de-traumatise Jihad into a less hostile term to be understood by those around us and future generations. 

Real Jihad, future generations

Also, we shoulder the obligation to show mercy and compassion to those who may have been misinformed about this doctrine. It is imperative to engage them positively and seek help from the learned religious figure if need be. To correct a misunderstanding in religion is part of enjoining good and preventing evil. We are the khaira ummah, and we need to own that reputation. 


[1] Linguistically means ‘those who truly struggle/strive’. It is a virtuous Quranic description of those who truly strive in life. In the modern context however, it is often used to describe members of a number of guerrilla groups operating in Afghanistan during the Afghan War (1978–92). See https://www.britannica.com/topic/mujahideen-Afghani-rebels

[2] https://www.britannica.com/event/Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan

[3] https://www.mha.gov.sg/isd/stay-in-the-know

[4] Countering violent extremism

[5] Narrated by Imam Ahmad


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