• Articles

    Pieces on Risale-i Nur and its Author
  • 1

What is Meant by Greater and Lesser Jihad?


By Ali Unal


There are two aspects of jihad. One is fighting against superstitions and wrong convictions and also against carnal desires and evil inclinations, and therefore enlightenment both intellectually and spiritually, which is called the greater jihad; the other is encouraging others to achieve the same objective and is called the lesser jihad.

The lesser jihad, which has usually been taken to mean fighting for God’s cause, does not refer only to the form of striving done on battlefields. The term is comprehensive. It includes every action from speaking out to presenting oneself on the battlefield when necessary – provided the action is done for God’s sake. Whether speaking or keeping silent, smiling or making a sour face, joining a meeting or leaving it, every action taken to ameliorate the lot of humanity, whether by individuals or communities, is included in the meaning of the lesser jihad.

While the lesser jihad depends on the mobilization of all the material facilities and is performed in the outer world, the greater jihad means a person’s fighting against his carnal self. These two forms of jihad cannot be separated from each other. Only those who triumph over their carnal selves can perform the lesser jihad, which, in turn helps man to succeed in the greater jihad.


There are as many paths leading to the Straight Path of God as the breaths of all His creatures

Although the man who abandons the lesser jihad is liable to spiritual deterioration, he may recover. Everything in the universe praises and glorifies God with its every breath and is, accordingly, a sign of the existence and Unity of God: a man may be guided to the Straight Path through one of these signs. For this reason, it is said that there are as many paths leading to the Straight Path of God as the breaths of all His creatures. A man returning from the lesser jihad is vulnerable to worldly weaknesses. Pride, love of comfort and ease may captivate him after a victory, and he may think it is time to relax and indulge in such things. These are some of the perils awaiting one who has returned from the lesser jihad. It is for this reason that the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, warned us through his Companions: returning to Madina after a victory, he said: We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater. However, to secure God’s help and protection and be successful in the greater jihad, in fighting against animal desires and impulses, depend upon supporting His religion. If anyone wants to be safe from going astray, then his aim in life must be striving for God’s sake, and his actions, including the simplest – eating, sleeping, choosing and training for an occupation, etc. – must be directed towards this objective. God declares in the Qur’an:

O believers! If you help [the religion of] God, God will help you and make your feet firm [in practicing your religion and against Satan, your carnal selves and enemies]. (Muhammad, 47:7)


The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, combined the two aspects of jihad in the most perfect way in his person

The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, combined these two aspects of jihad in the most perfect way in his person. He displayed monumental courage on battlefields. ‘Ali, who was one of the most courageous heroes of Islam, confesses that the Companions took shelter behind the Prophet at the most critical moments of the fighting. To give an example, when the Muslim army experienced a reverse and began to scatter in the first phase of the Battle of Hunayn, he urged his horse towards the enemy lines and shouted to call back his soldiers who were retreating: I am a Prophet, this is no lie! I am the grandson of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, this is no lie!

As he was the most courageous of all human beings on battlefields, so he was the most devoted in worshipping God. He was consumed with love and fear in his prayer, and those who saw him felt great tenderness towards him. He frequently fasted every other day or even in successive days. Sometimes he would spend almost the whole night in prayer and his feet would swell up as a result of long periods of standing in prayer. As recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari, once ‘A’isha thought his persistence in prayer excessive, so she asked him why he exhausted himself so much considering that all his sins had been forgiven. Shall I not be a slave grateful to God? Came the reply.

The Messenger of God, upon him be peace and blessings, sometimes got up to pray without wakening his wife since he did not want to disturb her sleep. Traditionists such as Muslim, Tirmidhi and Haythami relate, again, from ‘A’isha that one night she woke up to find the Messenger was not beside her in bed. Thinking that he might be visiting another of his wives, she became jealous. She started to get up, when her hand touched the Prophet’s feet in the darkness. He was in prostration and saying in his prayer: O God! I seek refuge in Your pleasure from Your wrath, in Your forgiveness from Your punishment, and with You from You. I am not able to praise You as You do praise Yourself.

Like the Prophet Muhammad himself, upon him be peace and blessings, his Companions, may God be pleased with them all, combined the two aspects of jihad in their lives. Those victorious warriors used to spend their nights in prayer to God. Once, as Ibn Hanbal relates, when night fell during a battle, two of them had to take turns in standing guard. One took his rest while the other began to pray. Having become aware of the situation, the enemy shot a shower of arrows at him. He was hit and bled profusely but did not abandon his prayer. When he finished his devotions, he woke his friend, who asked him in amazement why he had not woken him sooner. His reply was: ‘I was reciting sura al-Kahf, so I did not wish the deep pleasure I found in this prayer to be interrupted.’


The Companions were very sincere in their deeds; they did everything for God’s sake only, and never failed to discipline themselves

They were very sincere in their deeds; they did everything for God’s sake only and never failed to discipline themselves. ‘Umar was once giving a sermon, when he suddenly introduced the following words without any apparent reason: ‘O ‘Umar! You were a shepherd pasturing your father’s sheep!’ When asked after the prayer why he had said that, he answered: ‘It came to my mind that I was the Caliph, so I became afraid of feeling proud.’ One day he was seen carrying a sack upon his back. When asked why he was doing that, he replied: ‘I felt some pride within me, so I desired to get rid of it.’


Jihad needs self-control on the one hand, and preaching of the truth on the other.

Only jihad performed by such perfect souls as these produce effective results. Those who have not been able to get rid of pride, self-regard and insincerity, will most probably bring much damage to the cause of Islam and will never obtain the hoped for result. Jihad needs self-control on the one hand, and preaching of the truth on the other. It requires both the overcoming of one’s carnal desires and animal impulses and the encouragement of others to do the same in order to obtain God’s good pleasure. To neglect the former produces anarchy in the society, while neglect of the latter results in laziness. The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, expresses these two aspects of jihad together in one of his sayings:

The eyes of the two persons will never witness the fire of Hell: The eyes of the soldier who keeps guard at frontiers and on battlefields and the eyes of the man who sheds tears for fear of God.

In sura al-Nasr, the Qur’an describes both types of jihad:

When the help of God comes, and victory, and you see men entering God’s religion in throngs, then glorify the praise of your Lord, and seek His forgiveness; for He is Relenting, Merciful.

When the believers performed the lesser jihad whether by fighting on battlefields against those who waged war on them or tried to prevent them from worshipping One God only, or preaching the truth and enjoining the right and good and forbidding the wrong and evil, God’s help and victory came, and men began to enter Islam in throngs. At that moment the Almighty decreed that His praises should be glorified and His forgiveness should be sought. As all success and victory are from God, it is only He who must be praised and worshipped.