It is important to underline that ‘Islam’ means peace and aims for peace. As a last resort, and in exceptional circumstances, force may be used to defend oneself and others.
It is now more commonly understood that the word ‘Jihad’ means to struggle, to strive and to exert one’s effort. As such it is a very broad term and one that has a very positive connotation and is a central doctrine in Islamic thought. Sometime the word is used to imply warfare – and this is simply because that would be seen as an extreme act of physical exertion. However the Qur’an uses the term mostly in its broader meaning.
Jihad is thus a part of everyday life for Muslims – waking up for the early morning prayer, controlling one’s greed or anger, being kind to someone you do not like, working to better other people’s lives – would all be seen as a part of the daily jihad. The Prophet said that the greatest act of jihad is to speak the truth in the face of tyrant.
To extrapolate on the military context of the term (also known as the lesser jihad) – Islam does believe in a just war theory, like most Christian traditions, and envisages that violence can be used as a last resort in defence of one’s life and property or to stem oppression. For example, if a country is invaded by an aggressor. Islamic traditions lay down very explicit conditions for the controlled and disciplined use of military aggression – even going as far as saying that animals, crops and trees should not be harmed, that innocent bystanders should not be attacked, that places of sanctuary such as churches and monasteries should not be desecrated and that as soon as the aggression stops the defensive force should also show restraint.