The meaning of the word “jihad” has been the subject of much dissembling by Muslim spokesmen, who are quick to deny that the word has any violent connotations. In 2002, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at the University of California, claimed: “Islamic tradition does not have a notion of holy war. Jihad simply means to strive hard or struggle in pursuit of a just cause...Holy war (al-harb al-muqaddasah) is not an expression used by the Qur'anic text or Muslim theologians. In Islamic theology war is never holy; it is either justified or not.”
El Fadl is technically right that jihad does not mean “holy war”: the Arabic word translates most literally as “struggle” or “striving”. But is there more to it than this?
The authoritative Hans-Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic defines jihad as: "fight, battle...holy war (against the infidels, as a religious duty)". Similarly, the nineteenth-century British Orientalist E.W. Lane carefully studied the etymology of the word in his seminal Arabic-English Lexicon, which is widely considered by both native Arabic and English speakers to be the greatest such work in existence. Lane concluded that the word jihad “came to be used by the Muslims to signify generally he fought, warred, or waged war, against unbelievers and the like.”
However, no study on this subject would be entirely complete without reference to some Islamic sources. It is noteworthy that E.W. Lane says that this violent definition of jihad was used generally by Muslims, and this statement is completely accurate.
Reliance of the Traveller is a medieval Islamic legal manual, written as a comprehensive guide to Islamic law by Muslims, for Muslims. In 1991, it was endorsed by Islam's highest centre of religious learning, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, as conforming “to the practise and faith of the orthodox Sunni community” – Sunnis making up some 85% of the world's Muslims. It thus carries a great deal of weight as a scholarly explanation of Islamic doctrine. The manual defines jihad as “warfare against non-Muslims”, noting that the word itself “is etymologically derived from the word mujahada, signifying warfare to establish the religion.”
A similar definition of jihad was delivered by Al-Azhar during the Fourth Conference of the Academy of Islamic Research in 1968. A statement delivered at the conference declared: “The word 'Jihad' means exerting all efforts. It means also struggling hard until you feel exhausted. To strive against the enemy is to fight him. Jihad – from the viewpoint of religion – means exerting all efforts in repelling the enemies and in fighting them. Jihad is an Islamic word which other Nations use in the meaning of 'war'.”
Finally, the most recent English translation of the great Islamic jurist al-Mawardi's legal treatise, The Ordinances of Government, which has been designated by the Center For Muslim Contribution To Civilization as one of the "Great Books of Islamic Civilization", contains a glossary of Arabic terms. It defines jihad as simply, "Holy war to extend Islam to unconverted regions".
What these facts demonstrate is that while the word "jihad" and its various roots and derivatives have many connotations in Arabic relating to generic "striving", as a religious concept within Islam the word has always been understood by Muslims as defining a very specific kind of striving: namely, physical warfare against unbelievers.