There are two kinds of Jihad:
(1) The Inner or Greater Jihad against evil within oneself and for the
establishment of the good.
(2) The Outer or lesser Jihad which is a self-defence against those who
attack Islam. This is mainly, but not necessarily political in nature, e.g.
against other non-muslim communities. It can be but need not be military
(3) One could also add a third Social Jihad - to remove evil within the
community and establish good.
Hamid S. Aziz
The short answer is as follows: Jihad is derived from the word Johd
which means effort. It is used in Islam to define:
1) Exerting an effort to become a better Muslim and human being.
2) Exerting an effort to defend yourself against aggressors.
After returning from battle against the pagans, Mohammed said "We have
returned from the minor Jihad [meaning (2)] to the major Jihad [meaning
The Quran is very specific that battle is only taken in self defence.
All verses that non Muslims rely on in their claim that the Quran
commands Muslims to kill all infidels and such nonsense refer to
particular incidents during Mohammed's life that no longer apply. Even
the Islamic expansions after Mohammed's death were politically inspired
more than religously and very rarely were non Muslims persecuted because
of their beliefs (extremely rare).
Bin Ladin and others interpret the US presence in Saudi Arabia and
Israeli aggression against Palestinians as an attack on Islam that
warrants self defence (recall that he also believes that the governments
in many Islamic countries are corrupt and do not follow Islam). They
further interpret that American citizens are fully responsible and hence
are considered viable targets. Their beliefs come from their twisted
interpretations not from any direct verse in the Quran or other sources
of Islam (Sunna, Hadith, Seerah).
BTW, remember the Afghan war against the soviets? The fighters were
known as Mujahidin [those who do Jihad] because they were trying to
drive away an aggressor.
The problem with the word Jihad, IMHO, is that it is translated "Holy
War", which is a mistranslation. This brings to westerners the image of
the Crusades and other Holy Wars of early Christianity. They relate this
to Islam which is not historically correct.
Anyway, this is the short answer. Read about it in more detail in:
(I do not agree with many of these opinions, but this is a good article)
(An analysis of various interpretations of Jihad)