From an Arabic verb meaning to ‘struggle and persevere, denotes, in the history of Islamic civilization, religious war waged against heretics, unbelievers, and the enemies of the state or the community of Muslims. In early Islamic history “jihad” meant holy war, and, as a strictly Islamic phenomenon, it bears a strict relation to the spread of the faith by Muslim arms. It was a duty laid upon the believers, yet only among the descendants of the Kharijits, a band of warlike rebels, was jihad considered an obligation or command; and by them it was ranked as a sixth pillar of religion.
To the majority of Muslims, holy war, as such, was never more than a duty which free male adults performed if they had the means and the desire. It is misleading to suppose that under the banner of Islam wars were dominated by the jihad motif. The conquests which laid the foundations of the Arab empire were not, in fact, holy wars waged for the propagation of Islamic faith. The spirit that animated the invading hosts of Arabs who poured over the borders of the Persian and Byzantine empires was not proselytizing zeal nor fervor for the conversion of souls. On the contrary, re¬ligious interests appear to have entered but little into the plans of the Arab leaders who engineered the conquests and molded the ascendant Islamic state. It was the vast deser¬tion from the Christian faith, following the Arab conquests, that led to the erroneous view that the primary aim of the Islamic invaders was religious.
Nor can the dramatic episodes of the early days of Islam be explained on the single basis of jihad. As the organization of the army and its policies varied from age to age, so too the jihad principle assumed ever-changing features. At times the term had a purely worldly conception, and was translated, in accordance with its literal Arabic meaning, into struggle and perseverance. There is ample evidence to show that the military organization was always being adapted to the needs of an earthly state surrounded by a host of earthly enemies.
Though appeal to religion was always made during war, the religious motive was subordinated. When the Ottoman Empire disintegrated during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, organized jihad was thwarted by politi¬cal circumstances. In 1914 the final collapse of jihad as a religious force occurred. Ottoman Turkey, acting in alliance with the infidel countries, served notice on the believers to fight the Entente powers, but the only Muslim rulers to respond were the great Senusi of Libya and the Imam of Yemen. Certain movements in Islam, such as the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, still retain the holy war in their religious program, but most theologians either dismiss the idea of holy war or consider it a purely secular interpretation.