Popular writers in Western societies frequently argue that the term jihad does not mean “holy war” but, rather, a spiritual struggle. Attractive as this argument may be, there is little backing for it in either the traditional Muslim texts or in the work of more recent writers whose influence shapes modern Islam. Sunni and Shiite Muslims share a similar perspective that both jihad and the establishment of Sharia law are means of bringing freedom to all people so that they are free to choose to serve God. Jihad provides Muslims with a practical way of imposing God’s law (Sharia) on society to free people from their own evil inclinations and the evils encouraged by rulers who do not acknowledge the true law of God. Jihad thus brings freedom through creating the conditions for the imposition of Islamic law on all people.
Despite popular Western interpretations that seek to dismiss anyone who holds such views as “extremist,” today’s perspectives are misleading. Jihad is indeed primarily a form of warfare waged in defense of Islam so that it is highly misleading to dismiss someone like Osama bin Laden as “extremist” or claim that he “didn’t understand Islam.” The truth is, those like bin Laden and their followers are convinced that Islam is under threat from the West and that Western values are undermining Muslim societies. In their own eyes, therefore, they are fighting a legitimate war (jihad) in defense of Islam. No matter what the intent of those who minimize the military aspects of jihad may be, it is misguided in light of both traditional interpretations and current Muslim understandings of jihad.
Islam, for Muslims, is a religion of peace in the sense that the imposition of Islamic rule brings areas under Muslim control to peace and order in accordance with Islamic teachings about the will of God. It is, therefore, a Pax Islamica which imposes peace by dominating all opponents by force. Areas remaining free from control by Muslim rulers are viewed as the “realm of war,” awaiting subjection to Islamic rule and the administration of Sharia law.
This is why Muslims throughout history have regarded “the Conquests” of the first century of the Muslim era as the second greatest miracle of Islam, after the reception of the Qur’an. To say “Islam is a religion of peace” is not at all the same thing as saying “Islam is a peaceful religion.” Nowhere in Islamic teachings will you find statements such as those made by Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” or “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For the majority of Muslims worldwide, the primary meaning of jihad is a war on behalf of Islam. That being said, there are indeed small pockets of Muslims who prefer the notion of jihad as “spiritual struggle” rather than its traditional meaning of literal, physical warfare, but they are few and in-between.