Jihad is a religious duty for Muslims to “strive in the way of Allah.” Its intended meaning is controversial, though most Muslims see it as having several layers of meaning: an internal struggle against sin and disbelief, the struggle to improve one’s society, and holy war. Many Muslims believe the inner struggle to be the “greater jihad” and holy war to be the “lesser jihad.” In its martial manifestation, jihad is generally understood as defensive in nature—defending the faith or defending Muslim society—and is the only type of warfare permissible to Muslims. Martial jihad is governed by a set of rules, such as prohibitions against attacking non-combatants. However, a number of Islamic governments, movements, and individuals across history have upheld their own struggles as jihads or have used the term to rally support while waging offensive wars, disregarding restrictions on wartime codes of conduct, and going beyond the limits most Islamic scholars have set for legitimate jihad.
The use of jihad in Islam has become one of the most theologically and politically controversial issues since the rise of Islamic terrorism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Militant Islamist groups have labeled their various campaigns against the United States, Western culture and governments, secularism, and moderate Muslim regimes as jihads. However, the majority of mainstream Muslims reject this characterization of terrorist acts. Nevertheless, very few Islamic scholars reject the idea that jihad can legitimize the use of force in certain circumstances, making Islam the tradition with the most explicit acceptance of violence as justified and, in some cases, required, though it is only considered so under specific conditions. In contrast to its common connotations in politics and the media, most Muslims primarily view jihad as a personal struggle to better themselves.