What Is the Greatest Jihad?

By Steven Zimmerman

Today’s piece, first in a three-part series, was prompted by the following question from one of our readers:

“I was watching a video on YouTube, and an Islamic said that the corona is their new Jihad. Isn’t Jihad a Holy War where Islamics try to kill Americans?”


There is a short answer to the question. I could simply reply by saying, no, it’s not, and leave it at that. Then, that wouldn’t clear anything up for the lady who asked the question. It also wouldn’t explain that there are three different types of Jihad and that the lesser of the three is what most in the West would call a holy war.

What also doesn’t help is the definition of Jihad found in most dictionaries. For example, when you Google the meaning, you receive the following:





  1. a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam.

“he declared a Jihad against the infidels.”

  • the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.

noun: greater Jihad; plural noun: greater Jihads; noun: greater jehad; plural noun: greater jehads

We will look at the three different types of Jihad, as found in the Quran: the Jihad against yourself, Jihad against Satan, and Jihad against an open enemy of Islam.

We will begin with the actual meaning of the word Jihad.

Throughout the internet, news interviews, and what comes from the mouths of pundits and talking heads, Jihad does not mean to kill an infidel or to wage a holy war against the American way of life. It doesn’t even imply committing acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. No. the word Jihad simply means to struggle.

If we look at the Hadith of Muhammad, things Muhammad has said to others, we find the following:

Abu Umamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was asked, “Which jihad is most beloved to Allah?” The Prophet said, “A word of truth in front of a tyrannical leader.”

Even then, we do not find Muhammad speaking of death, murder or terrorism.

Let’s take a moment to look at each type of Jihad individually. In this, the first part of our series, we will look at the Jihad one wages against themselves.

JIHAD AGAINST SELF: The Greatest Form of Jihad

In Islam, the most critical battle a Muslim will fight will be the battle within himself against sinful desires and actions. This battle, for some, is an extremely hard-fought one.

In the Quran, Surat An-Naziat 79:40 we find the following:

وَأَمَّا مَنْ خَافَ مَقَامَ رَبِّهِ وَنَهَى النَّفْسَ عَنِ الْهَوَىٰ فَإِنَّ الْجَنَّةَ هِيَ الْمَأْوَىٰ

As for him who feared to stand before his Lord and he restrained himself from his desires, then Paradise will be his refuge.

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, said that the true mujahid, the true warrior in the way of Jihad in the cause of Allah is the one who wages Jihad against himself.

In a Hadith, a saying of Prophet Muhammad, Fadalah iba Ubaid reported that Muhammad has said:

الْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ

The one who strives in the way of Allah the Exalted is he who strives against his soul.

[This Hadith is found in Musnad Ahmad 23445, Grade: Sahih]

Further, Sheikh Al-Mubarakpuri comments on this same tradition, saying:

أَيْ قَهَرَ نَفْسَهُ الْأَمَّارَةَ بِالسُّوءِ عَلَى مَا فِيهِ رِضَا اللَّهِ مِنْ فِعْلِ الطَّاعَةِ وَتَجَنُّبِ الْمَعْصِيَةِ ، وَجِهَادُهَا أَصْلُ كُلِّ جِهَادٍ فَإِنَّهُ مَا لَمْ يُجَاهِدْهَا لَمْ يُمْكِنْهُ جِهَادُ الْعَدُوِّ الْخَارِجِ

This means he conquers evil inclinations within himself and performs acts of obedience pleasing to Allah, and he avoids acts of disobedience. This Jihad is the foundation for all other types of Jihad, for indeed if he does not perform this struggle, then he cannot struggle against external enemies.

[Sharh Sunan At-Tirmidhi 162]

Let’s take a look at someone who has reverted to Islam in a Western country.

In the United States, one may partake of pork products or even find themselves drinking beer and wine almost daily. Both products, in Islam, are haram, forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law. Giving it up, for some, could very well be hard.

Something else that is prevalent in the Western world that is forbidden by Islamic law is pornography – be it hard- or soft-porn.

Soft-porn is the less extreme sexual activity that we see in most television shows and movies. Viewing this, as it may lead to other impure thoughts or actions, is also considered haram in Islam.

But, why would giving these up these things, or anything else, be a struggle for some?

Here are two examples as to why:

I have someone I once considered a friend, Chris Swan, who would spend hours on a computer looking at porn. He was addicted to pornography to such an extent that it took over his waking life. His every thought, his every desire was how could he get his hands on something new, something different. His addiction has now alienated him from family and friends.

Try working to overcome an addiction such as that. It would not be easy at all.

In my personal life, alcohol was a personal struggle. I could not stop drinking at one point in my life. It was so bad that I began to blackout, lose my sense of time, and was starting to alienate my family.

My struggle began when I realized I had to stop drinking. I was at a night club and was the soberest of the group. Even though I had drunk myself into a stooper, we decided that I should drive us all home. I did.

We made it home that night. I wasn’t involved in a car crash, didn’t get pulled over, and we were all well and good – except for the mental anguish I had the next day.

The next day, on the news, there was talk of a crash involving a drunk driver. That driver did take the life of another person. It was then that I decided I needed to stop drinking. It was a struggle, a personal Jihad, that lasted almost two years, but I was able to stop.

There literally was a war raging inside of me.

We find the following, again, in the Quran:

قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَن زَكَّاهَا وَقَدْ خَابَ مَن دَسَّاهَا

He has succeeded who purifies the soul, and he has failed who corrupts the soul.

Surat Ash-Shams 91:9-10

And Allah said:

يَوْمَ لَا يَنفَعُ مَالٌ وَلَا بَنُونَ إِلَّا مَنْ أَتَى اللَّهَ بِقَلْبٍ سَلِيمٍ

It will be a day when there will be no benefit in wealth or children, but only in one who comes to Allah with a pure heart.

Surat Ash-Shu’ara 26:88-89

Even in Christianity, one wants to stand before God with a clean heart, a pure soul. No one wants to face judgement with a soul full of sin and overflowing with misdeeds.

This type of Jihad, the Jihad to improve yourself – and all of humanity – is the greatest Jihad there is.

Every single day, we struggle. We struggle against greed, worldly pleasures, hypocrisy, insincerity, hatred and envy, arrogance, pride, vanity and narcissism. We fight against a whole host of evil traits that come at us from all sides and seek to destroy us.

For Muslims, the struggle against these evils, this is their top priority – Jihad against self.

From the very beginning of Islam, we find that the earliest scholars, after Muhammad, considered Jihad against the soul, against self, to be the most important and greatest Jihad.

Ibn Al-Qayyim reported: It was said to Hasan Al-Basri, “O Abu Sa’eed, which jihad is best?” Hasan, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

جِهَادُك هَوَاك

Your Jihad against your desires.

Source: Rawdat Al-Muhibeen 1/478

Abu Na’eem reported: Ibrahim ibn Adham, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

أَشَدُّ الْجِهَادِ جِهَادُ الْهَوَى مَنْ مَنَعَ نَفْسَهُ هَوَاهَا فَقَدِ اسْتَرَاحَ مِنَ الدُّنْيَا وَبَلَائِهَا وَكَانَ مَحْفُوظًا وَمُعَافًى مِنْ أَذَاهَا

The most difficult Jihad is the struggle against desire. Whoever can prevent himself from his desires will be relieved from the world and its trials, and he will be protected and safe from its harms.

Source: Hilyat Al-Awliya 18

Ibn Rajab reported: Ibrahim ibn Abu Alqamah would say to people when they returned from an expedition:

قَدْ جِئْتُمْ مِنَ الْجِهَادِ الْأَصْغَرِ فَمَا فَعَلْتُمْ فِي الْجِهَادِ الْأَكْبَرِ

You have come from the lesser Jihad unto the greater Jihad.

They said, “What is the greater jihad?” Ibrahim said:

 جِهَادُ الْقَلْبِ

It is the Jihad of the heart.

Source: Jami’ Al-Ulum wal-Hikam 19

Imam Ali said: “One who struggles against himself so as to obey God, in the eyes of God, his station is that of a pious martyr.”

[Al-Amidi, Ghurar ul Hikam wa Durar ul Kalim, hadith # 3546]

It is understandable, from both the Quran, Muhammad and the scholars that Jihad against the soul, Jihad against self, is the most significant and most important of all Jihads. It is one that must be waged daily, to keep oneself pure – a pious struggle to purify your heart from all spiritual diseases that leads to transgression and sin.

As you can see, Jihad is not something that can be easily defined. Jihad against self, or soul is the first Jihad. Next week we will look at the second Jihad, Jihad against Satan.

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Categories: Islam, Year of Faith

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