Jihad is an Islamic term that is translated varyingly as “struggle,” “striving,” or “holy war.” Violent Islamic extremist groups typically translate the term as “holy war,” brandishing the word as a justification—and rallying cry—for engaging in conflict with non-believers.  

Despite the modern jihadist phenomenon, Muslims have historically used the word “jihad” to refer to internal personal struggles. Even in the context of religiously-sanctioned war, traditional Islamic scholars maintain that jihad refers exclusively to defensive military action, since the Quran commands Muslims to “fight in the way of God against those who fight against you” but not to “begin hostilities” without provocation. 

Islamists who advocate for violent jihad with non-believers are therefore expected to frame their campaigns as responses to preexisting grievances or aggressions. In another departure from historical interpretations of Islam, the founders of modern Islamist groups have asserted that jihad against non-believers should be an individual obligation upon every Muslim. This interpretation rejects the historical precedent that Islamic scholars were alone responsible for invoking jihad.

back to Glossary

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

View Archive