The literal meaning of jihad is “to strive.” More importantly, it means to progress in all aspects of one's life. Although the word jihad is used by the Western media with militant connotations, in truth, it covers a vast range of human activity, such as family life, work, spiritual development, and justified military defense.
The most important jihad is the struggle to purify one's soul, and this jihad far outweighs any military jihad.
Prophet Muhammad once met a group of soldiers returning home from a defensive battle and said, “Welcome to the people who have concluded the minor jihad [struggle].” Astonished, the soldiers asked, “Was this [military battle] a minor jihad? Then what is the major jihad?” Prophet Muhammad replied, “The major jihad is the jihad to purify one's self.”
The beginning steps of jihad are to purify the soul by restraining one's self from committing sins that corrupt the soul. One must control material desires, overt selfishness, and remain uninfluenced by forces (internal or external) that distract one from the remembrance of God. All the forms of worship in Islam, such as the prayers, fasting, and charity exist as a means to purify and perfect the soul. Only in the upward development of the soul will one find happiness in this life and in the next life. If the soul is unhappy, a person will be miserable, regardless of how materially wealthy he or she may be. The Quran says, “And by the soul and Him Who perfected it, then showed it what is right and what is wrong for it—indeed, he succeeds who purifies his soul, and, indeed, he fails who corrupts his soul.” (91:7) The soul is the essence of mankind; it is the element that will outlast this life and be judged in the next. One of the primary reasons mankind was placed in this world is to test them and develop their souls.
However, jihad also refers to the legitimate struggle to defend human rights, such as personal and religious freedom, as well as the defense of land, property, and family as the Quran notes, “Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully and offensively waged, and surely Allah is able to give them victory. Those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly, only because they said, 'Our Lord is Allah…'” (22:39-40)
When people are being oppressed, Islam commands the believers to defend the rights and integrity of the people. Fighting in the form of defense is not only permitted, but it is required. The Quran explains, “Fight against aggressors until oppression is stopped.” (2:193) Thus, jihad, as a form of fighting, must be for just causes and to defend the freedom, liberty, and integrity of society as the Quran extols, “And why do you not fight in the way of Allah and the utterly oppressed men, women, and children who are crying out, “O Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors, and raise for us from You, one who will protect; and raise for us from You, one who will help.” (4:75)
Peaceful countries today could not have achieved their stature without a campaign for independence or a struggle for freedom. Furthermore, such countries could not have retained their positions without a strong force. In life, struggle will always exist between good and evil, truth and falsehood, and societies cannot progress if oppressors are left unchallenged.