Muslims are sharply divided among themselves in their understandings of the term jihad, an Arabic term meaning "struggle." This is evident in the fact that over the centuries they have come to distinguish between different forms of jihad with varying nuances. In one reading, jihad might refer to legally-sanctioned defensive armed combat against one’s enemies. For example, the early Muslim community invoked this reading of jihad when besieged by the Quraysh, the dominant tribe in the city of Mecca when Muhammad began preaching a message that they felt socially and economically threatened by. The early Muslim community’s ongoing war with the Quraysh and its allies provided a blueprint for Islamic just war concepts that have been interpreted in varying ways since.
With the rise of Arab imperial power in the eighth and ninth centuries yet another layer of meaning came to be associated with military jihad as the term was invoked in the rhetoric of empire building and the legitimization of Muslim hegemony over non-Muslims and later over Muslims whose religious practice was perceived to be incorrect. This triumphalist interpretation of jihad was called upon during periods of conquest and reform, for example, during the reformist jihad of the Hausa leader and Islamic scholar Usman Dan Fodio (d. 1817) in what is now Nigeria.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as European colonialism and nationalism swept across many Muslim societies, jihad became an ideology of resistance. Anti-imperialist movements in India, Sudan, North Africa, and Palestine appropriated the concept of jihad to mobilize Muslim populations against Western imperial powers. French colonial forces in Algeria were met by ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (d. 1883), a scholar and Qadiri Sufi who is remembered by Algerians today as a national hero whose anti-colonial stance was deeply informed by his faith.
Jihad was also invoked against regimes that came into power after the colonial governments fell. Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), a prominent member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, opposed the regime of President Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser, asserting that it was contrary to Islamic principles. During nearly a decade of imprisonment and torture, Qutb called for the overthrow of “un-Islamic” regimes by violence if necessary and invoked the doctrine of jihad. His writings continue to inspire radical groups that use the concept of jihad to justify violence. The most significant reinterpretation of jihad in recent times took place in the context of the Cold War when a coalition of several nations, led by the United States, co-opted and endorsed a militant form of jihad in their battle against communism after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
These are not the only possible meanings of jihad, or even the most popular meanings as understood by Muslims through time and space. Muslims also speak of a jihad of the tongue and jihad of the pen as ways to express the teachings of Islam. Some Muslims have understood jihad in ethical terms, conceiving of it as a person’s inner struggle against the impulses of the ego, such as greed, anger, and jealousy—what the Prophet Muhammad himself referred to as the “greater jihad.”
In another sense, some Muslims consider jihad to be a human being’s struggle to fulfill one’s obligations to family and society. In the context of the modern nation state, jihad has been used to refer to a state-sponsored program that is non-military in nature. For example, President Bourguiba of Tunisia and General Musharraf of Pakistan employed the term in the context of eliminating illiteracy, poverty, and economic stagnation to promote economic and social development in their countries.