Jihad is holy war as a religious duty for Muslims. In our time some use the word in a moral rather than a military sense. In Muslim law, where it gets a whole chapter, it is always used in a military sense.
A jihad is a war either against infidels (those who do not believe in Islam) or against apostates (Muslims who have fallen away from the true faith). Only rulers can call a jihad.
Those who fall in battle in a jihad go straight to paradise. They are called martyrs or shahids.
Jihad has certain rules. Among others:
- Women and children are not to be killed unless they attack first.
- Those not fighting in the war should be treated well.
- Rulers must honour agreements they make – jihad does not allow them to break their word.
- Enemies must be told that war is coming.
On the other hand, jihad is winner takes all: the winner has rights over the property and persons conquered.
The conquered are treated differently according to their religion:
- People of the book: these include Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Mandeans – those who follow a revealed religion. They can either convert, pay a tax or die.
- Kafirs: those who worship gods, idols or spirits. They can either convert, become a slave or die.
So, for example, jihad does not justify 9/11: it killed thousands of unarmed men, women and children, some of them even Muslims. It was not called by any recognized ruler, it was hardly an attempt to extend Islam to America. It was merely a low, cowardly act. Thus the hijackers did not go to paradise but where they belong.
For the same reason it does not justify those who blow themselves up at bus stops since, again, they wind up killing old men, women and children.
In theory, jihad is unending until all the world falls under Muslim rule. In history, however, jihad does not go on all the time: only when and where it makes political and military sense to Muslim rulers.
In our time, the greatest jihad by far has been in the south of Sudan where countless Christians and others have died or been sold as slaves.
The most famous jihad of our time, however, is the one Osama bin Laden has declared against America. Not being a ruler or even a religious authority, his ability to do this is highly questionable. That has not stopped thousands from gathering to his black flag.
Sometimes jihad is between Muslims. For example, the Arabs under the Saudis fought a jihad against Turkish rule: the Turks were not Wahhabis like the Saudis, so the Saudis did not see them as true Muslims.
Christians have fought holy wars for their faith too. But unlike jihads, their aims were limited and falling in battle did not mean you would go to heaven. Popes and bishops have promised that only on occasion. It is not general doctrine as it is in Islam.