jihad, n. struggle; effort.
The meaning of jihad in a nutshell is this: one must always strive to be a better person, and in the process they inevitably need to exert effort and struggle with their own self, their circumstances, and temptations.
Every Muslim teaching requires a certain degree of jihad to achieve. To do your best at your job every day, you have to struggle with laziness. To put others before yourself, you have to struggle with selfishness. To become kinder, you have to strive for patience. To give, you have to overcome greed. To be truly humble, to completely believe that God has made you all that you are, you have to overcome your ego.
Jihad applies everywhere in life. Jihad is more than a beautiful idea. It is a necessary one. One can hardly imagine any reasonable lifestyle that does not contain jihad in one way or the other. In fact, jihad is just that which enables human beings to live together in peace.
This universal understanding of jihad is what is known in Islam as the “greater jihad”. It is one of the major themes in the Quran.
“O you who have believed, fear Allah and seek the means [of nearness] to Him and strive in His cause that you may succeed.” (Quran 5:35)
“And whoever strives only strives for [the benefit of] himself. Indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds.” (Quran 29:6)
“And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.” (Quran 29:69)
There are many more examples of this greater jihad in the Quran. God tells us not to follow the non-believers, and to use the Qur’an to refute their arguments (jihad) (Quran 25:52). He commends those who sacrifice (jihad) their material wealth for the cause of God (Quran 9:88).
Of course, jihad does apply in the physical sense as well. A person who dies defending his faith, life, family or possessions is considered a martyr, and has performed jihad, simply by overcoming fear to protect something worthy of protection in the eyes of God. Military jihad is only one example of this, but even being a victim of a crime, or being persecuted on account of race or faith or gender–all this implies jihad.
Military jihad means that you accept risking your own life in order to fight for the common good. The Quran does not talk about fighting for the sake of God; it talks about fighting for the cause of God. Jihad is about fighting for a good cause, whatever it may be. In this sense, military jihad is the same kind of spirit any army tries to cultivate in its soldiers.
All in all, 36 out of 6,236 verses in the Quran mention jihad or any of its derivatives. That’s just about half a percent.
Mentions of jihad in the hadith are also surprisingly sparse, especially when compared to the sheer size of hadith compilations. Most of the reported hadiths on jihad are within the implied context of war. However, the most vocal ones relate again to greater jihad. The prophet tells us that the best type of jihad is standing up to an unjust king/ruler. In another incident, he says that the best type of jihad is pilgrimage to Mecca. He talks about “struggle (jihad) of the heart”, and “struggle of the tongue”. He denotes looking after the widow and the poor as jihad. When a young man accepted Islam and expressed to the prophet his wish to practice jihad, the prophet told him his jihad was to take care of his parents.