The Arabic root of the word jihad, a concept central to Islam, is jahada, which means “to strive for.” There are two types of jihad. The first ("greater jihad") is the soul’s struggle with evil -- the daily inner quest to be a better person. The second type ("lesser jihad") is the struggle against religious or political oppression -- an armed conflict fought in defense of Islam -- where the adversary is an actual physical presence that must be destroyed. The apparent prioritization of “greater” and “lesser” has been reversed in an era of Terror.
Since 9/11, many organizations and individuals, both religious and secular, have actively promoted the idea that authentic jihad, in its truest sense, is by no means an actual physical war, let alone a war rooted in aggression or a desire for conquest. According to such a view, jihad's true spirit is peaceful, rather than militaristic. But Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, explains what jihad in fact has meant, historically, to Muslims:
“The way the jihadists understand the term is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history.... The goal is boldly offensive, and its ultimate intent is nothing less than to achieve Muslim dominion over the entire world.... Jihad did have two variant meanings through the centuries, one more radical, one less so. The first holds that Muslims who interpret their faith differently are infidels and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.... The second meaning, associated with mystics, rejects the legal definition of jihad as armed conflict and tells Muslims to withdraw from the worldly concerns to achieve spiritual depth. Jihad in the sense of territorial expansion has always been a central aspect of Muslim life.... Today, jihad is the world’s foremost source of terrorism, inspiring a worldwide campaign of violence by self-proclaimed jihadist groups."
According to the scholar Bat Ye'or, for non-Muslims through history jihad’s meanings have been clear: “war, dispossession, slavery and death.” She says:
“The fate of Jews in Arabia foreshadowed that of all the peoples subsequently conquered by the Arabs. The primary guiding principle was to summon the non-Muslims to convert or accept Muslim supremacy, and, if faced with refusal, to attack them until they submitted to Muslim domination.... The jihad developed into a war of conquest whose chief aim was the conversion of infidels.... The jihad is a global conception that divides the peoples of the world into two irreconcilable camps.... [It] is the normal and permanent state of war between the Muslims and the [infidels], a war that can only end with the final domination over unbelievers and the absolute supremacy of Islam throughout the world.”
Parts of this Summary are adapted from "Preventing the West from Understanding Jihad," by Walid Phares (July 18, 2007).