We would like first to clarify the true concept of Jihad and its wider dimensions by citing the following words of Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr, former Head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, in which he states:
"Jihad is one of the most misunderstood and abused aspects of Islam. There are some Muslims who exploit and misuse this concept for their own political objectives. There are many non-Muslims who misunderstand it. There are some other non-Muslims who misinterpret it to discredit Islam and Muslims.
That is why the word 'Jihad' has been misused due to misunderstanding its true meaning. The word 'Jihad' is derived from the Arabic word jahd which means fatigue or from the word juhd which means effort. A mujahid is the one who strives in the Cause of Allah and exerts efforts which makes him feel fatigued. Jihad means exerting effort to achieve a desired thing or 'to prevent an undesired one. In other words, it is an effort that aims at bringing about benefit or preventing harm.
Jihad can be observed through any means and in any field whether material or moral. Among the types of Jihad are struggling against one’s desires, Satan, poverty, illiteracy, and disease, and fighting all evil forces in the world.
There are many religious texts that refer to these types of Jihad. One of the forms of Jihad is defending life, property or honor. Those who die while engaging in Jihad are considered to be martyrs, as confirmed by Prophetic Hadiths. Jihad is also done to avert aggression on home countries and on all that is held sacred, or in order to face those who try to hinder the march of the call of truth."
Thus, Jihad is never a tool of waging war against the innocents. It is never a means of flexing the muscles or bullying the weak and oppressed. Jihad in Islam is something unique that is established to defend the divine message from being eliminated or hindered by its enemies.
Focusing on the question in point, the prominent Al-Azhar scholar Sheikh `Abdul-Majeed Subh states the following:
"I would like to tell you, dear son or dear daughter, who may share in the same belief or have his or her own, that understanding defensive Jihad as initiating fighting without a religiously acceptable reason is a total misunderstanding of the tenets of faith and the clear Qur'anic verses. In the Qur'an, defensive Jihad is under condition of repelling aggression, whereas preemptive Jihad is done only when the Muslim Ummah seriously expects a treason or an attack against its territories from an enemy.
Referring to this, Allah Almighty says: "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not do aggression, for Allah loves not the aggressors. Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers." (Al-Baqarah 190-194)
Contemplating over the meanings and shades of the aforementioned verses that are best misused and misinterpreted by many non-Muslims, I can deduce the following:
1- The apparently preemptive Jihad in the first verse "Fight…" is not an open call for all those who differ in creed. Rather, it is conditioned by "… those who fight…".
2-The phrase "And slay them wherever ye find them…" in the second verse is conditioned by "…but if they attack you…"
3- The general rule that everyone should pay attention to along the line is that "…Allah loves not the aggressors." And "… But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers."
After the above explanation, I would like to add that Islam prohibits attacking those who do not fight. As I stated above, the preemptive war in Islam is only permitted when there is treason against Muslims from the enemy with whom they live in peace, or imminent attack against the Muslim territories. In such cases, Muslims are not supposed to stand hand-cuffed and wait to be slaughtered by others, although the war they are supposed to launch is not an aim in itself.
Having said this, I would like to classify war in Islam into three main categories:
1-Defensive War, which is resorted to when the enemies of Muslims attack the religion, honor, property, territories etc..
2-Liberating War, which is done to liberate all those who are oppressed, such as slaves. This form of war was normal in the early days of Islam.
3- Preemptive War, which is launched only when Muslims know for sure that there is treason against their peaceful treaties with the enemy, when the enemy has a serious plan to attack them.
It is worth stressing at the end that all the three kinds of war that are mentioned above are approved by international law, and they are in effect in modern laws."