Recently terrorist activities by purportedly Muslim groups have increased debate over the place of violence in true Islam. Moderate Muslims say violence has no place, because Islam is a religion of peace. In their minds, it is as unfair to judge Islam by extremists as it would be to judge Christianity only by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Puritan witch hunts.

Is such a comparison reasonable? Does it do justice to the canonical teachings of both religions? The answer to these questions is found at least partly in a study of the Islamic concept of jihad and its lack of a full counterpart in Christian orthodoxy.

Spiritual jihad

The word jihad is often translated as "holy war," but it literally means "struggle" or "exertion." In its religious context, it always involves a fight against evil, but this can take many forms: jihad of the heart, of the mouth and pen, of the hand, and of the sword. Jihad of heart, mouth, and pen are sometimes spoken of as "spiritual jihad," particularly among the Shi'ites (the largest Islamic minority party, comprising roughly 10 percent of the Muslim world).

All Muslims must engage in jihad of the heart, which finds a rough parallel in the Christian command to put to death the sin nature. Muhammad clearly commanded his followers to fight their sinful tendencies, as did Jesus. Islam, though, offers no assistance in this struggle from the Holy Spirit, the counselor and guide promised to Christians.

Jihad of the mouth aims to undermine opposition to Islam through speech that takes one of two forms. The first, verbal argumentation, finds a Christian parallel in the discipline of apologetics. The second, curses and saber-rattling, has roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, where the art of extemporaneous ...

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