After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the word jihad became familiar in the West. While many non-Muslims view it as Islamic holy war against the infidels, a significant number of Muslims in the West insist that it has nothing to do with war and mainly refers to the struggle with oneself for piety and self-control. Indeed, the word is confusing to non-Muslims, but it has now become a part of the English language. In Islamic terminology, the word refers to struggling and striving to follow Allah’s commands. While the Quran seems to treat jihad generally, the hadith traditions provide specifics.

In my book A Concise Guide to the Quran, I focus on the meaning of jihad in the Quran. I explain that Islam’s scripture provides at least two meanings for the concept of jihad. One refers to “armed fighting (Q 8:72; 9:88; 49:15). The Quran has a specific term devoted to armed fighting with religious significance, qital, which refers to sacred fighting for Allah’s cause. In examining the Quran’s treatment of jihad and qital, I conclude, “Overall, while jihad has two meanings, qital has only one. While the former can be ambiguous, the latter is very clear. If people say that jihad is Islamic holy war, this can be right or wrong—but if they say that qital for Allah’s sake is Islamic holy war, they are right. Jihad and qital are not synonymous, but they overlap in one area: fighting against non-Muslims.”1 While the Quran appears vague and ambiguous in its use of the term jihad, the hadiths are detailed and specific.

In Sahih al-Bukhari, an entire section is devoted to the term jihad.2 Among the vast majority of Sunnis, this hadith collection is the most trusted Islamic source after the Quran. Sunnis commonly believe that Imam Bukhari “worked extremely hard to collect his [hadiths].

Each report in his collection was checked for compatibility with the Qur’an, and the veracity of the chain of reporters had to be painstakingly established.”3 This reflects the authoritative and prescriptive nature of the hadiths for most Muslims. For them, the hadith statements—especially those compiled by Bukhari—contain Muhammad’s teaching on the topic of jihad. In his collection on jihad, Bukhari gathered more than 280 hadiths (with some obvious repetitions) and attributed them to Muhammad, affirming they were precisely stated by Islam’s prophet centuries earlier.

According to Bukhari, a Muslim man asked Muhammad, “Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward),” to which Muhammad replied, “I do not find such a deed.”4 In the same hadith, we are introduced to an important Islamic term, mujahid, which refers to the person who strives in jihad for Allah; it is translated in English by Bukhari’s translator as “the Muslim fighter.” We are told that “the Mujahid (i.e., Muslim fighter) is rewarded even for the footsteps of his horse.”5 According to Bukhari, Muhammad praised the example of a Muslim mujahid and said, “The example of a Mujahid in Allah’s Cause—and Allah knows better who really strives in His Cause—is like a person who fasts and prays continuously. Allah guarantees that He will admit the Mujahid in His Cause into Paradise if he is killed, otherwise He will return him to his home safely with rewards and war booty.”6

Similarly, Muhammad is reported to have said, “Paradise has one-hundred grades, which Allah has reserved for the Mujahidin [plural of Mujahid] who fight in His Cause, and the distance between each of two grades is like the distance between the Heaven and the Earth.”7 This suggests the remarkable incentive for a mujahid, a striver in Allah’s path. This is also evident in a reported hadith by Muhammad: “Nobody who enters Paradise likes to go back to the world even if he got everything on the earth, except a Mujahid who wishes to return to the world so that he may be martyred ten times because of the dignity he receives (from Allah).”8 These hadiths reflect the praiseworthy status of jihad and highlight the great reward awaiting a striver in battle for Allah’s cause. They also indicate that there is a high status and reward for any martyr who dies in jihad. This may explain why many seek martyrdom for Allah’s sake and cause.

In the same vein, Muhammad reportedly said that the best deed for a Muslim is to offer the ritual prayer at its divinely prescribed times, while the second best is to be good and obedient to one’s parents, and the third is to “participate in Jihad in Allah’s Cause.”9 Muhammad continued by explaining that there is no forced emigration (hijra) for Muslims since they conquered the pagans of Mecca, “but Jihad and good intention remain; and if you are called (by the Muslim ruler) for fighting, go forth immediately.”10

It appears that jihad in these hadiths is directly linked with fighting for Allah’s cause, not simply indicating a self-piety and godliness. Muhammad reportedly declared, “Know that Paradise is under the shades of swords.”11 If a devoted Muslim perceives these statements as directly voiced by Muhammad, one inevitable reaction might be to seek the jihad of the sword for Allah’s cause. Like the term mujahid, the hadith introduces another term, ghazi, which refers to a warrior or an invader in Allah’s cause. Muhammad reportedly said, “He who prepares a Ghazi going in Allah’s Cause is given a reward equal to that of a Ghazi.”12 The term ghazi is a noun derived from the Arabic verb ghaza, “to invade.” According to Muhammad’s reported statement, there is a great reward not only for a warrior but also for the one who prepares the warrior. In one battle led by Muhammad, the Muslims of Medina reportedly declared, “We are those who have sworn allegiance to Muhammad for Jihad as long as we live.”13 ”

“This hadith reflects jihad in connection to devotion to Muhammad. Even Muslim women, we are told, sought jihad in battle because of its status and reward. Nonetheless, according to the hadith, women are not expected to fulfill the jihad in battle, because their jihad is to perform pilgrimage: Muhammad’s wife Aisha came to him and asked him to permit her to participate in jihad, but he responded, “Your Jihad is the performance of Hajj.”14

These are only a sample of hadiths on jihad found in one compilation that is highly trusted by Sunnis. These hadiths indicate the high status, great reward, and importance of jihad for Muslims, especially for those who believe that these statements came directly from Muhammad. The examination of these hadiths also highlights how they are clearer and more direct than many Quranic statements about jihad. This is one reason why the hadith corpus is so dear and close to the hearts of Muslims. If a Muslim seeks to obey Allah and Muhammad, they will inevitably attempt to follow these statements to the letter. But did Muhammad really say these hadiths? It might be better for a religiously pluralistic world if he did not. In fact, today a growing number of non-Muslim and Muslim thinkers question the long-standing authority of the hadith traditions.

From a critical standpoint, many scholars—particularly in the West—view the hadith statements as a product of their time of documentation, not as words said by Muhammad. When these hadiths were being compiled, Muslims were asking political and religious questions that did not concern Muslims during Muhammad’s time. It seems to have been convenient for many Muslims to forge accounts and simply attribute them to the most authoritative man in Islam, Muhammad. Once attributed to Muhammad, the collection only needed to be declared authentic and reliable in order to chastise any Muslim who questioned it. While this line of argument flourishes among non-Muslim scholars, a growing number of Muslims have adopted it as well by showing dissatisfaction with the entire tradition. Some identify these Muslims as “hadith-rejecters” in contrast to “the people of the hadith.” 


“1. See the discussion on Quranic jihad in Ibrahim, Concise Guide to the Quran, 126.

2. See, where the title reads, “Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihaad).”

3. See the comments of the editor at Sahih Bukhari,

4. Bukhari, 4.52.44.

5. Bukhari, 4.52.44.

6. Bukhari, 4.52.46.

7. Bukhari, 4.52.48.

8. Bukhari, 4.52.72.

9. Bukhari, 4.52.41.

10. Bukhari, 4.52.42, 79; 5.59.600; see also 4.52.311.

11. Bukhari, 4.52.73.

12. Bukhari, 4.52.96.

13. Bukhari, 4.52.208.

14. Bukhari, 4.52.127, 128.”


Excerpt From: “A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad by Ayman S. Ibrahim.