In Islam there is the concept of striving toward perfection. The Quran says that a good Muslim must “strive for the cause of Allah.” In Arabic this striving or struggle is called jihad. Jihad originally meant striving with great intensity. But this striving was meant to be an internal struggle to become the perfet Muslim that God–Allah–wanted each Muslim to be. Some scholars have even argued that when the Quran speaks of conquering unbelievers with jihad, it is saying to persuade them with the force of argument, and thus jihad means nonviolent activism. This is why numerous notable Islamic clerics have said that the prophet Jesus also instructed his followers to wage jihad.
Islamic scholars have always debated the meaning of the thirty-five references to jihad in the Quran. But as medieval Muslims became engaged in a series of difficult wars, the word jihad began to be used to denote the struggle to prevail militarily in place of the original word for such a physical battle, qital. All successful leaders understand the importance of words, and it seemed a good Muslim would fight harder if the struggle were called jihad rather than qital. After the death of Mohammed, Muslims began speaking of two kinds of jihad—al jihad al akbar, greater jihad, and al jihad al asghar, lesser jihad. Greater jihad was the struggle to be a pure and good person, while lesser jihad referred to armed struggle.
Mark Kurlansky, Nonviolence