Jihad is an Arabic word, which is often mistranslated as “holy war,” a concept, which does not exist in Arabic. The Arabic words for holy war “harb muqadasa,” are not found anywhere in the Qur’an or hadith (prophetic sayings). The term jihad literally means “striving.” The “greater jihad” is described as the internal struggle to avoid negative actions and cultivate good character. The “lesser jihad” is described as the external striving for justice, in self-defense or against oppression.
One can do this in one’s heart, with one’s tongue or pen, and if these are ineffective, by physically trying to change an oppressive situation, either in self-defense or to defend others against aggression (like the Revolutionary War by the founding fathers against the oppressive policies of the British; or World War II against the aggression of Hitler.) It is this last type of jihad that is misappropriated by extremist Muslims who cite jihad to justify terrorism. In reality, terrorism is the opposite of jihad, and closer to another Qur’anic term, hiraba, which means “corruption on earth.”