If the word jihad frightens you, you’re not alone. The term has been abused for years by the lunatic fringe of Islam, shouting “Allah-o Akbar” while killing innocent people, and Western media and opinion leaders who give these violent groups legitimacy by referring to them as “jihadists.” The term “jihad” implies that all Muslims—regardless of religiosity, background or nationality—are united in the ludicrous belief that it is their duty to bring other nations under their subjugation whenever possible.
With the abundance of data at the age of the internet, you’d think we’d do a better job understanding the “other” and gaining knowledge about the things we fear the most. However, sadly even Muslims are confused by their own religion, often following the extremist narrative or repeating the very words they are fed by the Western media and orientalists.
Orientalism, a term used by historians and scholars for the depiction of aspects of life in Middle East and Asian cultures, has been criticized for its exaggeration of differences and the application of cliched analytical models for perceiving the Eastern world. As Nancy Demerdash, Professor of History of Art and Architecture at the University of DePaul says, the designation of the term “orient” reflects “a Western European view of the “East” and not necessarily the views of the inhabitants of those areas.” In his revolutionary book, Orientalism, Edward W. Said, noted that orientalism is a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Muslims and their culture which derives from Western images of what is Oriental (cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional characteristic of the “Oriental,” dominating the discourse of the Western people with and about non-Western people.” 
Jihad is one of these abused concepts that has been exaggerated to fit the Western narrative on Muslims. No one can dispute the violent and psychopath tendencies of the Islamic radicals who have used and continue to use the term as an excuse to create havoc and destroy lives—and let’s not forget that most of their victims are in fact secular and progressive Muslims—but the Western sensationalized narrative does nothing if not contribute to their cause by giving them the legitimacy they do not deserve and so desperately crave.
As Asma Asarduddin, Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University says, “Orientalist scholars and Muslim militants both claim that the Quran comments Muslims to wage offensive warfare, which they call “jihad”—against non-Muslims until Islam occupies the whole world…. Some Western scholars and pundits argue that the concept of internal, nonviolent jihad is recent and deliberately misleading interpretation lacking a basis in the Quran. Rice University Professor David Cook, a prominent advocate of this perspective, goes so far as to insist that only Muslim and non-Muslim apologists in the West emphasize the notion of internal or spiritual jihad in order “to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible.”” 
Never mind that the actual term for war in the Quran is qital and not jihad as in verse 2:190, “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely, God does not love the aggressors.” The term qital has been used in over forty places in the Quran. The word jihad which means to strive, struggle or persevere is mentioned in relation to war in eight verses, while the other twenty-one verses refer to it as peaceful struggle. 
You might ask, so what? Replacing the word, doesn’t make the fact that the Quran mentions the act of war any better. But if we are going to demonize an entire “other” group, shouldn’t we at least get the terminology right?
It was Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), the Islamic scholar known as Averroes in the West, who said, “Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate, and hate leads to violence. This is the equation.” And Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), the great Islamic scholar and mystic, who said, “He who knows himself, knows God,” What Ibn Arabi implies here is extremely profound and relates directly to the internal struggle, the very jihad against our egos, to purify ourselves and reach the Divine—the very thing that Western orientalists claim is a new phenomenon in Islam and the extremists have conveniently forgotten in their pathetic attempt to become relevant. Other Islamic sages such as Molavi, known in the West as Rumi, Mahmood Shabistari, Mulla Sadra, Suhrewardi—the founder of the Islamic Philosophy of Illumination—have all advocated this internal struggle to self-purify and gain self-knowledge. Surely, these hakims, scholars, would argue that the orientalists are in fact wrong, and the internal spiritual jihad is not a new concept, but has existed since the time of the Prophet, who said, “The greatest jihad is to battle your own soul, to fight the evil within you.”
By gaining knowledge about Islam, it’s rich philosophy and mysticism, we become deeply disturbed by the intellectual laziness of the extremists who claim to represent billions of Muslims and have no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority. As Muslims, whether secular or religious, it is our responsibility to free ourselves from our own internal biases and understand Islam, and not fall prey to superficial power symbolisms used by extremists or the divisive narrative of the orientalists.
But I digress. Let me go back to the subject of the Prophet’s wars. There were nine battles during the time of the Prophet including Badr, Uhud and Ditch—all defensive engagements against offensive attacks by the Quraysh, who prosecuted the Prophet and his followers for thirteen years. There was the incident of Qurayzah, which was an implementation of the arbitration against traitors at the battle of Ditch. Al-Mustaliq was a response to an attack already in progress. And Khaybar’s plan to attack the Muslims triggered the Prophet’s march to Khaybar with 3000 men against their 10,000. As for Fath Mecca, the Prophet march to Mecca was a popular bloodless attempt to take control of his home city after eight years of exile. 
Here lies the discrepancy: While Muslims believe that the engagements during the Prophet’s lifetime were defensive and the Muslims involved in these incidents were victims of aggression, the same incidents have been portrayed by Western Orientalists as holy war launched by the Prophet or military operations to dominate the world. Since these events happened fourteen hundred years ago, there are thousands of reports about the Prophet’s life and his sayings, which means that contemporary researchers must go through thousands of reports to understand the justification for going to war in this period. Classical Muslim scholars developed complex and specialized methodologies to interpret these texts and decide on their authenticity. They concluded that military jihad referred to as minor jihad, is an exception. If minor jihad is required, it can be done using anything from legal, diplomatic and economic to political means. If there are no peaceful alternatives, Islam allows the use of force, but there are strict rules of engagement. The lives of the innocent must be protected and any peaceful overtures from the enemy must be accepted. 
The Quran says, “God made you into many nations and tribes so that you come to know one another.” In other words, human diversity is part of the Divine plan and the challenge for us is to interact with others despite our differences. Therefore, classical scholars reached the conclusion that war must be treated as a last resort because war is not a superior moral virtue.  The Quranic justification for war does not employ the word jihad as the term for combat, but qital, and there are plenty of verses that clarify Quran’s position—all of which are ignored by the extremists to push their own agenda:
Let’s reiterate. Jihad is not "holy war" but then why do so-called “jihadists” kill innocent people?”
As Franz Fanon (1925-1961) said in Black Skin White Masks, “Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent.” The extremist’s violent acts come from a sense of powerlessness and frustrations felt in the Muslim world since their countries were colonized and occupied by Western powers. It’s these psychological issues that lead to highly sensationalist symbolic acts.
Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, Daesh, Taliban, Wahhabis or the Shia radicals in power in Iran, far from being authentic expressions of classical Islam, are a byproduct of colonialism and modernity. Despite what they say, these radical groups ignore the diverse and rich history of the Islamic civilization and define their entire existence as opposition to the West. Unfortunately, the Western media and policy makers contribute to the issues facing Muslims either through lack of knowledge or intentionally, and even worse this ignorance and prejudice is now shared by many Muslims who do not know about their own traditions and in their limited knowledge accuse anyone who dares to highlight the humanistic aspect of Islam as westernized. 
As Muslims we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to gain both self-knowledge and knowledge about our history and religion. Otherwise, we’ll never break free from this web of violence and deceit.
As our beloved Molavi (Rumi) once said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Know your inherent beliefs.