Last December in Jerusalem I enjoyed an interesting conversation with an Israeli member of the Women in Black, who publicly demonstrate to end the occupation of the West Bank. She did not believe jihad was a threat to Israel, she told me, because "the real meaning of jihad is a struggle to improve oneself spiritually".
This of course is taken from the hadith where Muhammad commented that there was a "greater jihad" and a "lesser jihad". The greater jihad is spiritual improvement, and the lesser jihad is fighting unbelievers. This hadith has been given much airtime in the West. What is not usually mentioned is that it is a "weak" hadith, meaning Muslim scholars either do not believe it is authentic or give it little significance. It also stands in opposition to the entire Book of Jihad in the most reputable collection of Sahih Al-Bukhari.
My Israeli interlocutor probably didn't get a chance to read the detailed analysis of the meaning of jihad, both in its grammatical analysis and in its use in the Quran, that appeared recently in the online edition of Pakistan Daily. That is because it was quickly removed, although not before I was able to print a copy. In page after page the author analyzed the use of the word in its every appearance in the Quran and showed without any doubt that its primary meaning is to fight non-Muslims.
For the one in a million who is interested in the minutae of Arabic grammar, there is something even the author missed. For a brief introduction, a single Arabic verb such as JAHADA can appear in as many as ten forms. Each form has a slightly different grammatical structure as well as a specific meaning that is associated with that form. Form 3 verbs add an "a" after the first syllable, and have the meaning of "to attempt to do something in respect to another object or person". The root word JAHADA appears in form three as JAAHADA and has the root meaning of to struggle against an object or entity.
Each verb form has an associated noun, meaning to do the action of the verb. These nouns are also specific in structure, so if you know the verb you can predict the noun. For a few examples, HAAWALA means to try. The noun for an attempt is MUHAWALA. KAALAMA means to speak, and the word for conversation is MUKALAMA. FAATAHA means to open a conversation, and the opening of the conversation is MUFATAHA. JAAHADA means to struggle, and the meaning of a struggle is......MUJAHADA, right?
You would be wrong, and this is what the author failed to notice. There are several form three verbs, all related to physical struggle or combat, that have a unique noun structure. Rather than MUJAHADA (which does exist in the dictionary but is much less commonly used), the verb form for JAAHADA is JIHAAD (with the second "a" dropped in English). Here are a few other examples of verbs associated with violence sharing the same noun form. The form three verb QAATALA means to try to kill. Its noun is QITAAL. The verb SARA'A means to wrestle. Its noun is SIRAA'. The word KAAFAHA also means to fight (this is the verb commonly used with the precedent anti- as in "anti-drug forces". Its noun is KIFAAH.
Even this grammatical detail gives evidence that the primary meaning of the word jihad is a physical struggle against a known enemy.