Firstly let me say this; Many people will say things like ,"there is no violence in Islam" or "Islam is a religion of peace" or "the word Islam means peace". Well I'll let the cat out of the bag and clarify that these statements are not completely true. The word "Islam", actually means "submission" or specifically to submit willfully and completely to the will of Almighty God. The Arabic language is a language based on root words and the root word of Islam is "sa-la-ma" which is the also the root of the word "salaam" which of course in Arabic means "peace". So the words "Islam" and "Salaam" have the same root words, but they don't actually mean the same thing. Islam is a religion, like all other religions, that seeks to establish peace amongst human beings, however true peace comes from justice. As long as there is injustice, there cannot be peace. Even if people submit themselves to an oppressive ruler in order to avoid being killed, that isn't really peace.
So, what is Jihad? Does it really mean 'holy war', or is it strictly an inward spiritual thing? Well it is actually both and yet neither of them at the same time. The word 'jihad' is best translated into English as 'struggle'. There are two basic types of Jihad:
1) Jihad ul Nafs
2) Jihad ul Shayateen
Jihad ul Nafs is "Struggle of the Self". This refers to the inward struggle to discipline our own selves to behave above our base, animalistic instincts. It is to refine ourselves toward the ideal state of the human "self". Nafs has largely been understood by Islamic scholars to refer to the combination of the ruh or 'soul' or 'spirit' of a person, and their physical body. So when someone dies for example they loose their 'nafs' as their spirit and body are separated. As they lay in the grave their body deteriorates while their spirit remains in a state called "barzakh" (a dream like state) in the grave. So the jihad, or the struggle of the self, is the struggle to perfect our selves inwardly. To strive to avert your eyes when presented with images of scantly clad women is a jihad. To strive to be kind to people who you don't particularly like or people who aren't kind to you is a jihad. Even to be able to drag yourself out of bed in the morning to make the fajr (dawn) prayer is a jihad (at least for me it is). The prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him is reported to have said that the Jihad ul Nafs is the greater jihad, while the Jihad ul Shayateen is the lesser Jihad.
Jihad ul Shayateen or "Struggle against Evil Ones", refers to a struggle against outside forces including Iblis (the devil), the evil Jinn (demons) and evil human beings. This type of Jihad can take many forms. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said,
"the best jihad is to speak a word of justice to an oppressive ruler" (Sunan Abu Dawood 2040)
So the first and best form of jihad ul shayateen, is to speak up against rulers who are oppressing people. This hadith is prime evidence of the compatibility of American democracy and Islam. The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the peoples' right to do just that. That is why in Islamic government, the head executive is called a 'khalifah', which doesn't mean a ruler or king, but rather means 'a servant which has been given a trust'. In other words, according to Islam, the people are not the subjects of the government, the government is the subject of the people. So to establish this equilibrium is the best form of jihad ul shayateen. This form of jihad can also come in other forms. For example if oppression is financial, like the oppression of banks and the use of riba (interest) based banking, then the proper jihad against it means hitting the banks in wallet; not putting money in them. However, sometimes, when people are being violently oppressed, then it becomes necessary for the jihad to take on a violent form for the sake of defending the defenseless, and stopping this most awful type of oppression. This is the type of jihad most people have come to associate with the word, that is most people including non-Muslims and Muslims in many cases.
In the Qur'an, God speaks of the use of violence to defend the oppressed. Those who like to claim that Islam is a bloodthirsty, violent religion like to quote these verses in defense of their position. However they often don't quote the entire verse when they do so. For example they like to quote the verse...
"and kill them wherever you find them"
They'll quote this but they wont often quote the rest of the verse. Notice that it starts with the word "and", which of course means that something precedes it. So let us look at the entire verse.
"Fight in the cause of Allah, those who fight you, but do not transgress the limits, for Allah does not love the transgressors. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out of the places where they drove you out, for oppression is worse than killing. But do not engage them in combat in the sacred mosque, unless they engage you there. If they do so, kill them. Such is the reward for those who suppress faith, but if they cease, then Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful. Fight them until there is no more oppression, and justice and faith prevails. But, if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who cause oppression." (Qur'an 2:190-193).
By quoting the verse in its entirety, it's very plain to see that the permission to use violence in the Qur'an is only against those who fighting and killing you. Notice the phrase "oppression is worse than killing". Upon reading this it reminds me vividly of Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death". In other words it's better to kill me than to oppress me or to take my liberty. Likewise, while killing is never something one should want to do, it becomes necessary when someone is committing violent oppression of others. Also, if you read this verse in it's original Arabic, you will notice that the word 'jihad' is not even used in this verse. In fact the Qur'an never uses the word 'jihad' in connection to violence. The word used for fighting here is 'kitaal'.
Likewise, the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) gave many limitations to the Muslim armies in regards to conduct in battle. He forbade Muslims from killing any non-combatants (men, women or children), he forbade them from destroying houses of worship (regardless of religion), he forbade them from destroying civilian infrastructure (water sources, food sources, etc...), he forbade the unnecessary cutting of trees or destruction of crop, and he forbade the killing of livestock.
Like I said, jihad is an important part of Islam. It is largely considered obligatory for Muslims to engage in it in some form at some point in their life (as it is extremely unlikely that one would ever go an entire lifetime without being in a situation when it was necessary). It is important however to realize that there is a lot of confusion as to what jihad actually is.
In order for a violent jihad to be justified, the oppressors must be engaged in violence against a purely innocent group of people. In modern times there have been several justified jihads including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the genocide in Bosnia. Ironically in most cases when violent jihad has been justified, the US has been on the side of the mujihadeen (people who fight jihad). There is no justified jihad against the US as the US is not attempting to occupy any Muslim land nor is the US killing Muslims simply because they are Muslims. There are a lot of silly conspiracy theories amongst Muslims that the US is "secretly" waging war against Islam, but that is about as intelligent those who say that the Jews own ALL the media and that the Holocaust never happened. It's just silly. The US has without doubt made some dumb mistakes in foreign policy over the past several decades that have indeed led to a much lesser quality of life for many Muslims including the propping up of tyrannical dictators such as Saddam Hussein, prolonging civil war in Somalia by not excepting a widely agreed upon Islamic Courts government (even though they weren't the greatest but they did unite many of Somalia's warring tribes), and the blind financial and military industrial support of Israel without regard for how money and weapons were being used.
However despite all the mistakes that the American government has made in these regards, America has never held any fundamental hostility towards the religion of Islam. So those who call for Jihad against the US are wrong, and most certainly those who try to justify the killing of innocents are dead wrong.
I've read a letter to the American people from Usama Bin Laden on the State Department's website, and to be honest 90% of what he says is true. He speaks of how America has lost its way from the principals layed out by its founders. That America has become the very thing that it fought for independence from (a world empire). However it's that other 10% that makes him very scary and dangerous. He says that because the American people choose their leadership, that the American people themselves constitute part of the government, and are therefore a legitimate target. This view is completely un-Islamic and a complete twisting and distortion of the teachings of the Qur'an, as it can be seen from the above quoted verses. Besides, since when have our elected Representatives REALLY ever represented OUR interests?
In truth, if you want to talk about who is real enemy of Muslims of the world today, it isn't America or any other non-Muslim country. It is groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their ilk. They have killed many many more innocent Muslims then America ever has. Ultimately they don't have any intent on establishing the kind of justice that the Qur'an and our prophet taught. They only want power, and to thrust the extreme, puritanical 'version' of Islam on their under their thumb.
I hope that for some non-Muslims that read this that it would clarify some mis-information they may have on the concept of Jihad amongst Muslims, and I hope for Muslims reading this that they consider the implications of jihad in their own life and ask themselves if they're truly upon the proper understanding of this concept.
...And Allah Knows Best...