Lesser and Greater Jihad

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Within the Islamic tradition, the word "jihad" or "struggle" has two specialized meanings: either a personal struggle of self-improvement and following the law of Allah, or as a military struggle or holy war to expand the domain of Islamic political control or to defend Islamic territories and believers from infidel aggressors. The former definition, though designated as the "greater jihad", in fact stems from the latter definition, which is the earlier, more primordial meaning of the word in Islamic religious literature. In fact, this "lesser jihad" seems to have been a fundamental aspect of religious devotion from the earliest times of the believers' movement, and the earliest material in the Islamic canon refers solely to this aspect of jihad. The former definition was highly influenced by Christian polemic against Islam, which cast it as a "religion of the sword" against the foible of Christianity as preached by Jesus as a religion of "turning the other cheek" to aggressors.

As Paul M. Cobb, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania notes, "the 'Greater Jihad,' is often overemphasized by contemporary apologists uncomfortable with the prominent place of jihad in medieval Islamic sources" and "it is also perfectly clear that when medieval Muslims discussed jihad, they were almost always discussing it in the sense of armed struggle against infidels."[1]


The two forms of Jihad in Islam are sometimes explained as follows:

  • Lesser outer jihad (al-jihad al-asghar); a military struggle, i.e. a holy war
  • Greater inner jihad (al-jihad al-akbar); the struggle of personal self-improvement against the self's base desires

It is claimed that this "inner Jihad" essentially refers to all the struggles that a Muslim may go through, in adhering to the religion. For example, a scholarly study of Islam can be an intellectual struggle that some allegedly may refer to as "jihad."

Adam J. Silverstein, professor of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, provides the following summary of the dispute:

From the 9th and especially the 10th centuries, many Muslims – influenced by quietist trends (e.g. Twelver Shiites), by spiritual ones (Sufis), and by Christian attacks against Islam’s claim to be a religion of peace – came to divide jihad into two types. The first was what they termed the ‘lesser jihad’, which is the familiar obligation to spread Islam at the expense of other religions, but which is only to be undertaken as a defensive measure. The second is the ‘greater jihad’, a general obligation on all Muslims actively to ward off their own evil inclinations. Though this distinction was retroactively attributed to Muhammad himself, it is clear from the historical record that most rulers (and many Muslims) disagreed with such interpretations. The important point, though, is that they were there to be adopted by those who abhor even defensive violence, and – latterly – by Muslim apologists who claim that jihad has been defensive or an inner struggle all along.
Adam J. Silverstein, Islamic History, Oxford University Press, pp. 73-74, ISBN 978–0–19–954572–8, 2010 


During Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, and onward to the present, the word 'Jihad' was, and is, almost always used in a military sense.[2] This idea of a greater and lesser jihad was a later development which originated from the 11th century book, The History of Baghdad, by the Islamic scholar al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, by way of Yahya ibn al 'Ala', who said:

We were told by Layth, on the authority of 'Ata', on the authority of Abu Rabah, on the authority of Jabir, who said, 'The Prophet (salallaahu 'alayhee wa sallam) returned from one of his battles, and thereupon told us, 'You have arrived with an excellent arrival, you have come from the Lesser Jihad to the Greater Jihad - the striving of a servant (of Allah) against his desires.'[3]

All four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Fiqh) as well as the Shi'ite tradition, all formulated in the 2nd and 3rd centuries after Muhammad's death, make no reference at all to the "greater" jihad, only the lesser.


Nonconformity with the Qur'an

One of the most important factors in the classification of a genuine hadith, is that it must conform with what is written in the Qur'an. This hadith appears to directly contradict the teachings of the Qur'an.

Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their goods and their persons. Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home). Unto all (in Faith) Hath Allah promised good: But those who strive and fight Hath He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward,

Nonconformity with Major Hadith Collections

In all six major Hadith collections (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Dawud, al-Sughra, Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah), jihad almost always refers to the "lesser" outward physical struggle and not the "greater" inward spiritual struggle. As an example, there are nearly 200 references to jihad in the most trusted collection of hadith, Sahih Bukhari, and every single one assumes that jihad means literal warfare.

The fabricated hadith compiled by al-Baghdadi does not appear in any of the famous hadith collections and is inconsistent with the teachings found in corroborated (Mutawatir) sahih hadith. Some of these hadith state that fighting jihad is second only to the belief in Muhammad and Allah, and that standing for an hour in the ranks of battle is better than standing in prayer for sixty years (this seems, again, to directly invert the idea that religious devotion is somehow greater than participation in the Muslims' military struggle).

Furthermore, Muhammad himself appears to directly refute the claim that the "greater" jihad is the inward spiritual struggle, when he states the best jihad is that of a man whose "blood is shed and his horse is wounded".

It was narrated that Amr bin Abasah said: “I came to the Prophet and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, which Jihad is best?’ He said: ‘(That of a man) whose blood is shed and his horse is wounded.’”
Sunan Ibn Majah 2794
It was asked, 'Oh messenger of Allah!, which of makind is most excellent?'. He (Sallallahu alyhi wa salam) replied: "A believer who strives in the path of God with his self and his wealth.[4]
Saheeh Bukhari 4/45
Allah's Apostle was asked, "What is the best deed?" He replied, "To believe in Allah and His Apostle (Muhammad). The questioner then asked, "What is the next (in goodness)? He replied, "To participate in Jihad (religious fighting) in Allah's Cause."
Standing for an hour in the ranks of battle is better than standing in prayer for sixty years.[4]
Saheeh related by Ibn Ade and Ibn Asakir from Abu Hurayrah 4/6165. Sahih al Jaami as Sagheer no. 4305
A morning or evening spent in the path of Allah is better than the world and all it contains.[4]
Saheeh al Bukhari 4/50 , agreed upon
Shall I tell you who has the best degree among people? A man who takes the rein of his horse to do jihad in the way of Allah
It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Sa'id Khudri that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said (to him): Abu Sa'id, whoever cheerfully accepts Allah as his Lord, Islam as his religion and Mubammad as his Apostle is necessarily entitled to enter Paradise. He (Abu Sa'id) wondered at it and said: Messenger of Allah, repeat it for me. He (the Messenger of Allah) did that and said: There is another act which elevates the position of a man in Paradise to a grade one hundred (higher), and the elevation between one grade and the other is equal to the height of the heaven from the earth. He (Abu Sa'id) said: What is that act? He replied: Jihad in the way of Allah! Jihad in the way of Allah!
On the authority of Rashid, on the authority of Sa'd (radiallaahu 'anhu), on the authority of one of the Companions, that a man said, "Oh Messenger of Allah! Why is it that the believers are all put to trial in their graves, except for the martyrs?" He (salallaahu 'alayhee wa sallam) said, "The clashing of swords above his head was sufficient trial for him."[5]
Sahih al-Jam'i

The importance placed on physical jihad in Islam is made apparent in sahih hadith which record Muhammad referring to Muslims who refuse to fight or consider going to jihad as 'hypocrites'.

It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: One who died but did not fight in the way of Allah nor did he express any desire (or determination) for Jihad died the death of a hypocrite.
Whoever dies but neither fought (i.e., in Allah's cause), nor sincerely considered fighting, will die a death of Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic era of ignorance.
Jihad is made Obligatory
Sahih hadith, Tafsir Ibn Kathir

Views and Research by Scholars

Lesser vs Greater Jihad Hadith

The "lesser versus greater jihad" hadith's isnad (the completeness of the chain of narrators and the reputation of each individual narrators within the chain of oral tradition) has been categorized by scholars as "weak" (da`if), and generally in Islamic law, only the authentic (sahih) and good (hasan) hadiths are used in deriving the rules. The weak hadiths have no value for the purpose of Shari'ah.[6] Contemporary Islamic scholars have even classed it as "maudu" (fabricated), meaning this narration, by some, is not even considered to be a hadith at all.[7]

Dr. Abdullah Azzam:

[It] is in fact a false, fabricated hadith which has no basis. It is only a saying of Ibrahim Ibn Abi `Abalah, one of the Successors, and it contradicts textual evidence and reality... The word "jihad", when mentioned on its own, only means combat with weapons, as was mentioned by Ibn Rushd, and upon this the four Imams have agreed.[8]

Ibn Taymiyyah (also known as Shaykh ul-Islam):

There is a Hadith related by a group of people which states that the Prophet [peace be upon him] said after the battle of Tabuk: 'We have returned from Jihad Asghar [lesser jihad] to Jihad Akbar [greater jihad].' This hadith has no source, nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic Knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions, and moreover it is the most important action for the sake of mankind.[9]

Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani:

This saying is widespread and it is a saying by Ibrahim ibn Ablah according to Nisa'i in al-Kuna. Ghazali mentions it in the Ihya' and al-`Iraqi said that Bayhaqi related it on the authority of Jabir and said: There is weakness in its chain of transmission.[10]
Hajar al Asqalani, Tasdid al-qaws, see also Kashf al-Khafaa’ (no.1362)

Al Bayhaqi:

Its chain of narration is weak. Ibn Hajr said that this was a saying of Ibraaheem bin Abee Ablah, a Taabi’ee, and not a Ahaadeeth of the Messenger (SAW). [11][12]
Hajar ibn al Asqalani ’Kashf al-Khafaa’ (no.1362)

Al Haakim:

His hadith are unreliable.[13]

Abu Yala al Khalili:

He often Adulterates, is very weak and narrates unknown hadith. Their is also a narrator, Yahyah bin Alulah, who is a known liar and forger of hadith (Ahmed).[13]
Mashir al Ashwaq, Ibn Nuhad pg 1/31

Amru bin Ali an Nasai and Ad Darqutni:

His hadith are renounced.[13]

Ibn Adi:

His hadith are false.[13]
Tahzeeb ut Tahzeeb 11/261-262

Abu Dahadbi:

Abdu Hatim said he is not a strong narrator, Ibn Ma'een classified him as weak and Ad Daqatuni said he is to be neglected.[13]

Mufti Zar Wali Khan (who is given the title Sheikh ul hadith) mentioned in his "Dora Tafsir" that this hadith was fabricated by Sufis.

Related Hadith From the Same Source

A similar narration taken from the same source reads:

The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the Martyr.

This hadith has also been classed as Maudu (fabricated), even by its originating source.

Dr. Suhaib Hassan:

Mentioned by al-Manjaniqi is his collection of ahadith of older narrators reporting from younger ones, on the authority of al-Hasan al-Basri. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi said that it is maudu as a narration from the Prophet (s.a.w), but that is a statement of al-Hasan al-Basri [Kashf al-Khafa, no. 2276].[11]

Shaikh Abdullah Faisal:

Related by Khateeb in The History of Baghdad 2/193. He also said it was a fabricated hadith.

The above-mentioned fabricated hadith gives preference to the method of da'wah over jihad for spreading Islam. However, the best method for spreading Islam is jihad and not da'wah. Thus the Holy Prophet (s.a.w) spent thirteen years in Makkah giving da'wah and only approximately one hundred people embraced Islam. But when he (s.a.w) entered Makkah with military might and Shawka (power) two thousand took their Shahadah in one day.

The Mujahideen conquer lands and save the entire populace from entering Hell-fire by delivering Islam to them. This accomplishment is much greater than what books can do.

Also this fabricated hadith contradicts the Holy Qur'an:

Surah An Nisa verse 95:

"Not equal are those of the believers who sit at home(except those who are disabled by injury or are blind or lame), and those who strive hard and fight in the Cause of Allah with their wealth and lives. Allah has preferred in grades those who strive hard and fight with their wealth and their lives above those who sit at home."[14]

Lesser vs Greater Jihad Concept

In the Editors preface to Yusuf al ‘Uyayree's "Thawaabit ‘ala darb al Jihad" (Constants on The Path of Jihad), we find the following in reference to the concept of the 'greater jihad' being the inner struggle:

This is a very twisted concept of Jihad via Western propagation albeit it is true from a linguistic point of view. However, the overall Islamic connotation of Jihad is fighting for the sake of Allah (Jihad fe Sabeelillah). Before Islam, the word Salat was used by the Arabs; it meant supplication. But when Islam came, it changed the meaning of the word to the prayer we know of, although, linguistically it remains as supplication. The same is applied to Jihad. Before, it had nothing to do with fighting for the sake of Allah; and when Islam came, it became very apparent that Islam changed its meaning. One may argue that the Qur’an uses the word Jihad for ‘struggling’. This is true as we see this in many ayaat of Qur’an. However, like we said, the overall implication of Jihad has changed, but its linguistic meaning remains the same. For example, when the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhe wassallam) said: Narrated by Abu Huraira: Allah’s Messenger said: “Whosoever dies without participating in an expedition (Jihad) nor having the intention to do so, dies on a branch of hypocrisy.” Is he referring to an “inner struggle” here? Not at all.[15]

Ibn Baaz:

Question: Is Jihad in the way of Allah the same level regardless of whether it is with one's life, wealth , or supplication , even if somebody is cabable of the type that involves one's life?

Answer: There are different kinds of jihad - with one's self, wealth, supplication, teaching, giving guidance, or helping others in good in any form.The highest form of jihad, however, is with one's life (the intent here is not suicide, for that is forbidden in Islam), then comes Jihad with one's wealth and jihad with teaching and guidance, and in this way Da'wah is a form of jihad, but jihad with one's life is the highest form.[16]

Dr. Muhammad Amin:

Jihad of the self and Jihad by wealth, if they do not lead one to establish the Call of Truth, and to stand beside it, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, and contributing one's life and wealth in the Path of Allah, are deficient Jihads containing inadequacy. It is astonishing that the hour of testing and of severity, in which the feet are shaken and the heart reaches the throat, can be called the Hour of the Lesser Jihad, while the hours of safety and comfort in secure homes, in the midst of one's family and friends, can be called hours of the Greater Jihad! In the like of such appellations do the holders-back rejoice in their sitting behind from obeying the Messenger of Allah (salallaahu 'alayhee wa sallam) and his Companions (radiallaahu 'anhum)? Such people find contentment and comfort in this way, while in reality they only deceive their weak souls, for the true values of the deeds are entirely the opposite.[17]


In accordance with the historical evidence, the lesser versus greater jihad hadith and other similar narrations have been shown by Islamic scholars to be, not only weak, but false. Their place in Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) is thus suspect, as is their use in Islamic thought, as they contradict sahih hadith and the Qur'an itself. Professor David Cook sums up the consensus which was reached from these scholarly discussions:

In reading Muslim literature -- both contemporary and classical -- one can see that the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Today it is certain that no Muslim, writing in a non-Western language (such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu), would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent or has been superseded by the spiritual jihad. Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism and/or work in interfaith dialogue, and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible. [18]

See Also

External Links


  1. Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: an Islamic History of the Crusades, Oxford University Press, p. 30, ISBN 9780190614461, 2016, https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-race-for-paradise-9780190614461?cc=us&lang=en& 
  2. Bernard Lewis, "The Crisis of Islam", chapter 2, 2001. 
  3. Fayd al-Qadir vol. 4, p. 511
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Imam Abdullah Azzam, "Join the Caravan (p. 4)", Religioscope (originally from al-haqq.org), December 2001, http://www.religioscope.com/info/doc/jihad/azzam_caravan_1_foreword.htm. 
  5. Abu Khubayb and Abu Zubayr, "The Slandered Jihad (Refutation of Jihad Asghar)"
  6. Muzammil Siddiqi, "May People Act According to a Weak Hadith?", Islam Online, Fatwa Bank, September 27, 2003 (archived from the original), http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=https%3A%2F%2Fweb.archive.org%2Fweb%2F20061216005731%2Fhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.islamonline.net%2Fservlet%2FSatellite%3Fpagename%3DIslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar%2FFatwaE%2FFatwaE%26cid%3D1119503547442&date=2014-03-15. 
  7. Ibrahim B. Syed, "52 Weak Ahadith", Islamic Research Foundation International, accessed November 20, 2011 (archived), http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_251_300/52_weak_ahadith.htm. 
  8. Imam Abdullah Azzam, "Join the Caravan: Conclusion", Religioscope (originally from al-haqq.org), December 2001 (archived), http://www.religioscope.com/info/doc/jihad/azzam_caravan_6_conclusion.htm. 
  9. Ibn Taymiyyah, "Al Furqan", pp. 44-45
  10. Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, "Jihad Al Akbar", As-Sunnah Foundation of America, (from: "Islamic Beliefs and Doctrine According to Ahl al-Sunna: A Repudiation of "Salafi" Innovations"), accessed November 20, 2011 (archived), http://www.sunnah.org/tasawwuf/jihad004.html. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Dr. Suhaib Hassan, "The Science of Hadith", TheReligionIslam, accessed November 20, 2011 (archived), http://www.thereligionislam.com/islamicideology/scienceofhadith.htm. 
  12. "Be Aware - Da'eef (weak), mawdoo’ (fabricated) hadeeth", World of Islam Portal, May 10, 2008 (archived), http://islam.worldofislam.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=729:qwe-have-returned-from-the-lesser-jihad-to-the-greater-jihad-jihad-un-nafs-jihad-ul-akbarq&catid=129&Itemid=63. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Imam Abdullah Azzam, "Join the Caravan (p. 27)", Religioscope (originally from al-haqq.org), December 2001, http://www.religioscope.com/info/doc/jihad/azzam_caravan_1_foreword.htm. 
  14. Shaikh Abdullah Faisal, "100 Fabricated Hadiths", Darul Islam Publishers, 2000 (archived), http://www.missionislam.com/knowledge/books/100FabricatedHadith.pdf. 
  15. Shaykh al Uyayree - Constants in the Path of Jihad - Lecture series delivered by Imam Anwar al Awlaki, transcribed and edited by Mujahid Fe Sabeelillah
  16. Shaykh Abdul-Azeez Bin Baaz, Fatawa Islamiyah, Vol 8, p.24
  17. Dr. Muhammad Amin, Path of Islamic Propagation
  18. David Cook, "Understanding Jihad", University of California Press, pp. 165-6, ISBN 978-0-520-93187-9, 2005 (archived), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppjtw.