Below are three excerpts from Bernard Lewis’ (“the West’s leading interpreter of the Middle East” and “the most influential postwar historian of Islam and the Middle East.”) classic 2003 book The crisis of islam. In the first excerpt, Lewis explains what jihad means, in the second excerpt he talks the similarities / differences between jihad and crusades and the third excerpt explains the difference between martyrs in islam and christendom. Emphasis in bold was added.

Bernard Lewis on jihad

One of the basic tasks bequeathed to Muslims by the Prophet was jihad. This word comes from an Arabic root j-h-d, with the basic meaning of striving or effort. It is often used in classical texts with the closely related meaning of struggle, and hence also of fight. It is usually cited in the Qur’anic phrase “striving in the path of God” (e.g., IX, 24; LX, 1 et cetera) and has been variously interpreted to mean moral striving and armed struggle. It is usually fairly easy to understand from the context which of these shades of meaning is intended.

In the Qur’an the word occurs many times, in these two distinct but connected senses.

In the early chapters, dating from the Meccan period, when the Prophet was still the leader of a minority group struggling against the dominant pagan oligarchy, the word often has the meaning, favored by modernist exegetists, of moral striving.

In the later chapters, promulgated in Medina, where the Prophet headed the state and commanded its army, it usually has a more explicitly practical connotation. In many, the military meaning is unequivocal. A good example is IV, 95: “Those of the believers who stay at home, other than the disabled, are not equal to those who strive in the path of God with their goods and their persons. God has placed those who struggle with their goods and their persons on a higher level than those who stay at home. God has promised reward to all who believe but He distinguishes those who fight, above those who stay at home, with a mighty reward.” Similar sentiments will be found in VIII, 72; IX, 41, 81, 88; LXVI, 9 et cetera.

Some modern Muslims, particularly when addressing the outside world, explain the duty of jihad in a spiritual and moral sense.

The overwhelming majority of early authorities, citing the relevant passages in the Qur’an, the commentaries, and the traditions of the Prophet, discuss jihad in military terms.

According to Islamic law, it is lawful to wage war against four types of enemies: infidels, apostates, rebels, and bandits. Although all four types of wars are legitimate, only the first two count as jihad. Jihad is thus a religious obligation. In discussing the obligation of the holy war, the classical Muslim jurists distinguish between offensive and defensive warfare. In offense, jihad is an obligation of the Muslim community as a whole, and may therefore be discharged by volunteers and professionals. In a defensive war, it becomes an obligation of every able-bodied individual. It is this principle that Usama bin Ladin invoked in his declaration of war against the United States.

For most of the fourteen centuries of recorded Muslim history, jihad was most commonly interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power. In Muslim tradition, the world is divided into two houses: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), in which Muslim governments rule and Muslim law prevails, and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels. The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue, interrupted only by truces, until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule. Those who fight in the jihad qualify for rewards in both worlds—booty in this one, paradise in the next.

In this as in so many other matters, the guidance of the Qur’an is amplified and elaborated in the hadiths, that is to say traditions concerning the actions and utterances of the Prophet. Many of these deal with holy war. The following are a few samples.

– Jihad is your duty under any ruler, be he godly or wicked.
– A day and a night of fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer.
– The nip of an ant hurts a martyr more than the thrust of a weapon, for these are more welcome to him than sweet, cold water on a hot summer day.
– He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief.
– God marvels at people [those to whom Islam is brought by conquest] who are dragged to Paradise in chains.
– Learn to shoot, for the space between the mark and the archer is one of the gardens of Paradise.
– Paradise is in the shadow of swords.
The traditions also lay down some rules of warfare for the conduct of jihad:

– Be advised to treat prisoners well.
– Looting is no more lawful than carrion.
– God has forbidden the killing of women and children.
– Muslims are bound by their agreements, provided that these are lawful.

The standard juristic treatises on shari‘a normally contain a chapter on jihad, understood in the military sense as regular warfare against infidels and apostates. But these treatises prescribe correct behavior and respect for the rules of war in matters such as the opening and termination of hostilities and the treatment of noncombatants and of prisoners, not to speak of diplomatic envoys.

For most of the recorded history of Islam, from the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad onward, the word jihad was used in a primarily military sense. (…)

p. 29-33

Bernard Lewis on the similarities / differences between jihad and crusades

Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. In a sense this is true—both were proclaimed and waged as holy wars for the true faith against an infidel enemy. But there is a difference. The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels. Christendom had been under attack since the seventh century, and had lost vast territories to Muslim rule; the concept of a holy war, more commonly, a just war, was familiar since antiquity. Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history—in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day. The word crusade derives of course from the cross and originally denoted a holy war for Christianity. But in the Christian world it has long since lost that meaning and is used in the general sense of a morally driven campaign for a good cause. One may wage a crusade for the environment, for clean water, for better social services, for women’s rights, and for a whole range of other causes. The one context in which the word crusade is not used nowadays is precisely the original religious one. Jihad too is used in a variety of senses, but unlike crusade it has retained its original, primary meaning.

p. 37-38

Bernard Lewis on martyrs in islam and christendom

Those who are killed in the jihad are called martyrs, in Arabic and other Muslim languages shahid.

The English word martyr comes from the Greek martys, meaning “witness,” and in Judeo-Christian usage designates one who is prepared to suffer torture and death rather than renounce his faith. His martyrdom is thus a testimony or witness to that faith, and to his readiness to suffer and die for it.


In Islamic usage the term martyrdom is normally interpreted to mean death in a jihad and its reward is eternal bliss, described in some detail in early religious texts. Suicide, by contrast, is a mortal sin and earns eternal damnation, even for those who would otherwise have earned a place in paradise.

p. 38-39

All citations from: Bernard Lewis (2003) The crisis of islam. Holy war and unholy terror. Modern Library.