From my days in a Christian seminary, I was taken to understand that there is a "lesser jihad" (the term most Americans assume is meant) and a "greater jihad" (which is the struggle against one's own sin.)

While the term has a clear connotation when used by non-Muslims in the United States, what is the real connotation of the term when used in Islamic circles? Is the first reaction really the "greater" or "lesser" jihad, and what is the practical understanding for "the man in the street?"

5 Answers 5


Is the first reaction really the "greater" or "lesser" jihad?

Yes, there is lesser/greater jihad.

Greater jihad/Major jihãd- One is fighting to overcome carnal desires and evil inclinations. It is known as the spiritual struggle, a struggle between two powers within ourselves: the soul and the body. The conscience is in conflict with the bodily desires. This spiritual conflict is an ongoing jihãd within each one of us. Islam expects its followers to give preference to the soul and the conscience over the body and its desires.

Lesser jihad/Minor jihãd - It is the armed struggle. However, that does not automatically mean unjustified use of violence. The minor jihãd may be divided into two: aggression and defense. Aggression against any people is not permitted in Islam; however, defense is an absolute right of every individual and nation. Islam has allowed the minor jihad only to defend the Muslim people and their land, and to maintain peace in Muslim societies.

The first verse of the minor jihãd, the armed struggle, revealed at that time is in Chapter 22, Surah Al-Hajj, of the Qur’ãn, verses 39-40. It clearly explains the purpose of the minor jihãd:

“Permission is granted to those who are fighting because they have been oppressed…those who have been expelled from their homes without any just cause…” (Surah al-Hajj, 22:39-40)

Again, referring to the non-believers of Mecca who waged war after war against the Prophet and his followers in Medina, the Qur’ãn in Chapter 2, Surah al-Baqara, verse 190, says:

“Fight in the way of God those who are fighting against you; and do not exceed (the limits). Verily Allãh does not love those who exceed (the limits).” (Surah al-Baqara, 2:190)

In this verse, the talk is about responding to a war by defending yourself; there is no talk of initiating aggression at all. Even in the defensive mode of struggle, Almighty God warns the Muslims that they should not “exceed” beyond the proper limits.

Islam teaches that Muslims should be strong in order to defend themselves, but that does not mean they have to become aggressive and unjust. In Chapter 8, Surah al-Anfal, verses 60-61 of the Qur’ãn, God has provided this general guidance very clearly when He addresses Muslims in the following way:

“Prepare against them (i.e., the enemy) with whatever force and trained horses you can in order to frighten thereby Allãh’s enemy, your enemy, and others besides them who you do not know but Allãh knows them.” (Surah al-Anfal, 8:60)

After giving this general guidance of being strong and prepared to defend ourselves, the verse goes on:

“But if they (the enemies) incline to peace, then you (also) incline to it, and put your trust in Allãh…” (Surah al-Anfal, 8:61)

In short, Islam wants Muslims to be strong so that others would not bully them; but then they have to extend the hand of peace even towards their enemies if there is an inclination of peace on the enemy’s part.

Actual Jihad definition

There are the defenition of jihad taken from various sources. More or less they mean the same but just for clarity i am posting them all.

  • Jihad (English pronunciation: /dʒɪˈhɑːd/), an Islamic term, is a religious duty of Muslims. In Arabic, the word jihād translates as a noun meaning "struggle". Jihad appears 41 times in the Quran and frequently in the idiomatic expression "striving in the way of God (al-jihad fi sabil Allah)"

  • Others use the term as a synonym for a struggle of any type. This reflects the origin of the word from the Arabic verb "jahada" which means to struggle or fight.

  • Jihad has the literal meaning of exerting our best and greatest effort to achieve something. It is not the equivalent of war, for which the Arabic word is qital. Jihad has a much wider connotation and embraces every kind of striving in God’s cause

  • the word jihãd literally means striving and working hard for something.

Below are wrong definitions. It is based on the mentality of western non-muslims

  • Many accounts in the media define "jihad" as a synonym for "holy war," -- a vicious clash between followers of different religions, each of whom believes that God is on their side and that the other side is is of Satan. This usage often appears on Western TV, radio, and other media during news about the Middle East, where it is used to describe a call for Muslims to fight against non-Muslims in the defense of Islam. Some Muslims have begun to adopt this meaning of "jihad" as a result of Western influence.

  • The word ‘Jihād’ is commonly translated into English as ‘the Holy War’ and for a long while now the word has been interpreted so that it has become synonymous with a ‘mania of religion’. The word ‘Jihād’ conjures up the vision of a marching band of religious fanatics with savage beards and fiery eyes brandishing drawn swords and attacking the infidels wherever they meet them and pressing them under the edge of the sword for the recital of Kalima. The Artists have drawn this picture with masterly strokes and have inscribed these words under it in bold letters:
    The History of this Nation is a tale of Bloodshed.

The following are the sources from where i have picked up this content

  • 1
    "Aggression against any people is not permitted in Islam" - this answer sounds like that statement is a matter of consensus. However, quite weighty legal opinions command regular aggressive warfare against peaceful Non-Muslims; for references, see my answer here.
    – G. Bach
    May 14, 2017 at 11:25

Although the concept of lesser and greater Jihad comes form inauthentic sources, it's meaning can be correct. The meaning of Jihad can be split into two, one is the general meaning and second is the specific reason which is what comes first to mind when the word Jihad is said.

As for it's general meaning, it is to strive to do the truth and go against everything which is against the truth. An example is to strive against ones own desires and Shaytaan. Another is to do jihad in ones parents, meaning to serve and fulfill the rights on you towards them. This type of Jihad is very important and supersedes going out on Jihad (Jihad Attalab that is) , The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said when a man came to him asking if he can go out on Jihad, the reply was:

أحيٌ والداك؟ قال: نعم قال: ففيهما فجاهد

Are your parents living? He said: Yes. Thereupon he (the Holy Prophet) said: You should put in your best efforts (in their) service.

صحيح مسلم (Muslim)

There are other types, but basically, Jihad in it's general meaning is obligatory on every single Muslim.

Ibn Qayyim said:

والتحقيق أن الجهاد فرض عين إما بالقلب أو باللسان وإما بالمال وإما باليد فعلى كل مسلم أن يجاهد بنوع من هذه الأنواع

Jihad is ovligatory on every Muslim whether it is by the heart, or tongue, or money/wealth, or by the hand, it is obligatory on a Muslim to do Jihad with one from these types.

As for the specific meaning, it is to fight the non-believers physically, and this is Fard Kifayah (meaning if a group f Muslim fulfill this obligation it falls for the others) and in some instances it becomes Fardu Ayn, and this type of Jihad is considered the best and fullest of all the others, as it has a number of other types included in it.


I would like to point out that as far as the "Lesser Jihad" and "Greater Jihad" quote goes, that is not in the Qur'an and neither is it in any of the 6 "Sahih" (reliable) Hadiths. This is taken from the Middle East Encyclopedia (an online encyclopedia hosted by Mideast Web for Coexistence):

Many Muslims today mistakenly believe that fighting the enemy is jihad asghar (a lesser jihad) and that fighting one's ego is jihad akbar (a greater jihad). The following narration [athar] is quoted as proof: "We have returned from the lesser jihad to embark on the greater jihad." They said: "What is the greater jihad?" He said: "The jihad of the heart, or the jihad against one's ego."

This narration is used by some to lessen the importance of fighting, to discourage any preparation for combat, and to deter any offering of jihad in Allah's way. This narration is not a saheeh (sound) [this is another spelling of "Sahih" above] tradition...

The following is from the Center for the Study of Political Islam:

Ninety-eight percent (98%) of all jihad hadiths call killing jihad (lesser jihad) the best action.

So, if the lesser jihad is the warfare-jihad, then why do 98% of the jihad Hadiths consider it the best? Furthermore, there is no mention of a lesser jihad in the Qur'an.

This saying has become increasingly popular as the media coverage of extremist muslims has broadened. It seems that this is used to downplay the violence in the Qur'an. And, yes, there are copious amounts of violence in the Qur'an but understandably so, as the book came from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE, an exceptionally hostile place.

I want to be clear, I am not saying that the religion is violent. Whether or not a religion is violent seems wholly dependent on one's interpretation of the religion. What I am saying is that there are violent passages contained therein, much like the Bible.

  • +1 for this "I am not saying that the religion is violent. Whether or not a religion is violent seems depend wholly on one's interpretation of the religion" and also another +1 for this "there are violent passages contained therein, much like the Bible." Mar 14, 2015 at 7:12
  • and +1 for my line "Unlike nearly all of the Old Testament verses of violence, the verses of violence in the Quran are mostly open-ended, meaning that they are not restrained by the historical context of the surrounding text." or not my line but this article's line Does the Quran really contain dozens of verses promoting violence? Mar 14, 2015 at 7:12
  • yes the terms lesser and greater Jihad aren't there in Qur'an. The terms were used to describe because controlling oneself from doing bad is more important than doing good. Mar 14, 2015 at 7:13
  • You say +1, but don't actually vote +1... Kind of confused here. And you say, "because controlling oneself from doing bad is more important than doing good." I don't mean to be disrespectful but that is your opinion (as of now), which means nothing in a religion of over 1.5 billion. The Quran and Hadiths are what set forth doctrine, so please link a comment to which Hadith says that. That would be far more useful than stating what could be conceived as mere opinion. Mar 15, 2015 at 0:15
  • "strive (jihad) with your wealth and your lives in the cause of Allah. " Quran 9:41. You can see jihad (striving) with wealth is given importance than jihad with lives
    – Shafeek
    Oct 15, 2023 at 4:17

Words have literal meanings and technical \ specialized meanings. For example:

  • Zakat literally means to increase or purify. However when used in Islamic texts and discussions, without any further context or qualifications, it is understood to mean the purification of wealth through giving of charity - not any other type of purification.

  • Sawm literally means abstinence, however as a technical term in Islam it means the ritual of fasting i.e. to abstain from food, drink and sexual pleasures from dawn till sunset.

  • Salah literally means supplication, however as a technical term in Islam it means a worship ritual involving certain movements and recitations.

  • Hajj literally means to intend towards something great. However as a technical term in Islam it means the rituals of pilgrimage that are performed annually in a specific month towards the sacred Masjid in Makkah.

In the same way to do Jihad literally means 'to struggle', and is occasionally used to mean different types of struggle. However when used as a standalone term without any more context or qualification, it is understood to be in its technical meaning, which is defined as: fighting against the disbelievers. And at times for preparation of fighting such as the financing of weapons, transport and supplies etc. (which is Jihad with one's wealth) or motivating.

قال: وما الجهاد؟ قال: أن تقاتل الكفار إذا لقيتهم ، قال: فأي الجهاد أفضل؟ قال: من عقر جواده وأهريق دمه

A man asked: "What is Jihad?"

The Prophet ﷺ said: "To fight the disbelievers when you meet them."

The man asked: "Which Jihad is most superior?"

The Prophet ﷺ said:"That in which his steed is hamstrung and his blood is spilled."

Musnad Ahmad

أن الجهاد في سبيل الله إذا أطلق فلا يقيم بإطلاقه إلا على مجاهدة الكفار بالسيف حتى يدخلوا في الإسلام أو يعطوا الجزية عن يد وهم صاغرون

If Jihad in the way of Allah is mentioned categorically then it does not mean anything except struggling against the disbelievers with the sword until they accept Islam or pay Jizyah while being subdued.

Muqaddimmat al-Mumahhidaat

One can also look at ahadith where fighting is compared with other actions. Note that prayer, fasting, seclusion, migration and pilgrimage are also types of spiritual and physical struggle but in these ahadith Jihad is used specifically as a name for fighting as distinct from the other types of struggle:

جاء رجل إلى رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال دلني على عمل يعدل الجهاد قال لا أجده ـ قال ـ هل تستطيع إذا خرج المجاهد أن تدخل مسجدك فتقوم ولا تفتر وتصوم ولا تفطر قال ومن يستطيع ذلك قال أبو هريرة إن فرس المجاهد ليستن في طوله فيكتب له حسنات

A man came to Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) and said, "Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward)."

He replied, "I do not find such a deed." Then he added, "Can you, while the Muslim fighter is in the battle-field, enter your mosque to perform prayers without cease and fast and never break your fast?" The man said, "But who can do that?" Abu- Huraira added, "The Mujahid (i.e. Muslim fighter) is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse while it wanders bout (for grazing) tied in a long rope."


أن رجلا، أتى النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم فقال أى الناس أفضل فقال رجل يجاهد في سبيل الله بماله ونفسه قال ثم من قال مؤمن في شعب من الشعاب يعبد الله ربه ويدع الناس من شره

A man came to the Prophet (may peace he upon him) and said: Who is the best of men?

He replied: A man who does Jihad (fights) in the way of Allah spending his wealth and staking his life.

The man then asked: Who is next to him (in excellence)?

He said: Next to him is a believer who lives in a mountain gorge worshipping his Lord and sparing men from his mischief.


أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم سئل أى العمل أفضل فقال إيمان بالله ورسوله قيل ثم ماذا قال الجهاد في سبيل الله قيل ثم ماذا قال حج مبرور

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) was asked, "What is the best deed?" He replied, "To believe in Allah and His Apostle (Muhammad).

The questioner then asked, "What is the next (in goodness)? He replied, "To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah's Cause."

The questioner again asked, "What is the next (in goodness)?" He replied, "To perform Hajj 'Mubrur (pilgrimage)"


قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم لا هجرة بعد الفتح ولكن جهاد ونية، وإذا استنفرتم فانفروا

Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "There is no Hijra (i.e. migration) after the Conquest (of Mecca), but Jihad and good intention remain; and if you are called (by the Muslim ruler) for fighting, go forth immediately.


One can also see the definitions of Jihad which is done by scholars in manuals of jurisprudence:

الجهاد هو الدعاء إلى الدين الحق، والقتال مع من امتنع عن القبول بالنفس، والمال

Jihad is inviting the people to accept the true religion and fighting against those who refuse to accept it, by one's life and wealth

Al-Bahr ar-Raiq and Fatawa 'Alamgiri (Hanafi)

الجهاد: قتال مسلم كافراً غير ذي عهد؛ لإعلاء كلمة الله أو حضوره له، أو دخول أرضه له

Jihad is fighting by a Muslim against a disbeliever who does not have a treaty for the sake of superiority of the word of Allah, or being present in the battle or entering the land of the disbelievers

al-Fawaakih ad-Dawaani (Maliki)

ولأن الجهاد هو القتال

Jihad is fighting

al-Muhadhdhab fi Fiqh al-Imam ash-Shaafi‘i also see إتحاف الأريب (Shafi'i)

تعريف الجهاد ... شرعا: عبارة عن قتال الكفار خاصة

Definition of Jihad: ... In Shariah: it means fighting the disbelievers specifically

al-Mubdi‘ fi Sharh al-Muqni‘ (Hanbali)

So if an orthodox Muslim or scholar talks about Jihad, then they typically mean this type of Jihad. And this is the 'real' meaning and connotation of the word, and the first reaction to it - unless there is implicit context or explicit evidence within the conversation to indicate that they are talking about something else.


Jihad means striving in the way of Allah. It includes all kind of efforts in the path of Allah, so also includes armed struggle, if necessary.

You can find Quran instructing to strive (do jihad) using the Quran

Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness, with the (Qur'an). Quran 25:52

Also, in some places you can find Quran asking to strive using wealth and then our lives

[It is that] you believe in Allāh and His Messenger and strive in the cause of Allāh with your wealth and your lives. That is best for you, if you only knew. Quran 61:11

As you can see Quran uses jihad (striving) in different ways but some people nowadays think Jihad is only armed struggle, which is not true.

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