Islam Explained Part 4 of 5: The True Meaning of Jihad

First publication of a pamphlet from Intellectual Muslim

Do you imagine (O Muslims) that (all of) you will enter paradise, when Allah has not yet known those (of you) who have striven hard (in His way), nor yet known those (of you) who are steadfast? [Chapter 3, Verse 142 of the Holy Quran]

Imam Jafar al-Sadiq said “The Prophet of God dispatched a contingent of the army (to the battlefront). Upon their (successful) return he said ‘Blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have yet to perform the major jihad.’ When asked ‘What is the major jihad?’ the Prophet replied ‘The jihad of the self (struggle against self).” [Al-Majilisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 19, p.182, Hadith no. 31]

Imam Ali said “One who struggles against himself as to obey God, in the eyes of God, his station is that of a pious martyr.” [Al-Amidi, Ghurar ul Hikam wa Durar ul Kalim, Hadith no. 3546]

Misconceptions About Jihad

Since the tragic events of 9/11, the media have attempted to link the term jihad to not only those catastrophic events but to any other event in which a so-called “Muslim” commits an act of violence. Specifically, the media have portrayed the term jihad to mean “holy war.” On January 4, 2011, a guest on Fox News, when discussing the bombing of a church in Egypt, said a holy war is being fought in the Middle East now “not because we (America) want it to be, but because al Qaeda and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and various other radical Islamists and jihadists, they say it’s a religious war. That’s what a jihad means.” This statement could not be further from the truth. The purpose of this brochure is to demystify the term jihad, to give a better understanding of what the term means, to explain the two types of jihad, and to show how jihad applies in Christianity and is thus not a concept that applies exclusively to Muslims.

Definition of Jihad

If one were to inquire about the term jihad with any Arabic language expert he/she will tell you that jihad does NOT mean “holy war.”  Rather, the word jihad literally means to strive or to work hard for something.  For example, Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence is called a jihad in Modern Standard Arabic.  Moreover, the terminology of jihad is also applied to such movements as the fight for women’s liberation. In the Arabic language and Islamic terminology the meaning of striving for something can be bifurcated into two distinct dimensions: the major jihad and the minor jihad.  Each is discussed in turn below.

Major Jihad

The major jihad is the spiritual struggle. It is the struggle between two opposing forces within a person: (1)The divine power (the soul) that attracts the human being to conduct acts of goodness and kindness and (2) the satanic power (bodily desires) that tempts a person towards darkness and shame and invites a person to commit acts of evil and sin. In other words, the major jihad is the struggle against evil ideas, desires, and the powers of lust and anger. A person must strive against these evil desires and try to obey God’s commands and desires. As stated in the Holy Quran “Not equal are those believers who sit still, other than those who are disabled, and those who strive in the way of Allah with their wealth and their selves.” [Chapter 4, Verse 95 of the Holy Quran]

This struggle is much more difficult than fighting in a battlefield. Islamic teachings profess that one who succeeds in the major jihad can rise above the status of angels, and one who fails in this struggle can descend to a level below that of animals.

An example of the greater jihad is the mandatory obligation to fast during the month of Ramadan. Fasting is obligatory on every adult Muslim. Fasting is the perfect example of the greater jihad. Fasting enables a person’s soul to be liberated from the shackles of wishes and desires and moves a step further toward the lofty summits of knowledge and intellect. One moves a step closer to the kingdom of God by rising above all mundane needs. For this purpose, fasting puts a restriction on all such things which cause an increase in our desires and incline us toward pleasure. When a person endures such constraints, bonds with this world are broken and one comes closer to the Creator. Fasting also strengthens the spirit of sacrifice in a person and urges one to show compassion to people who are less fortunate. To experience hunger and thirst in a fast brings one closer to the poor and makes one realize their needs.

Minor Jihad

The minor jihad is the armed struggle. However, by no means does this mean unjustified use of violence in any circumstance. Aggression against any people, regardless of their religion, is NOT permitted in Islam. As stated in the Holy Quran, “he who slays a human being for other than murder (as punishment for killing another human being) or for spreading corruption in the land (it shall be) as though he has slain all mankind; and he who saves a human life, it shall be as though he has saved the entire mankind.” [Chapter 5, verse 32 of the Holy Quran] On the other hand, self-defense is an absolute right of every person and nation. Therefore, the minor jihad can be equated to self-defense against harm. Islam has allowed the minor jihad only to defend the Muslim people and their land and to maintain peace in Muslim society. Thus, it is clear that suicide bombers are acting against all tenets of Islam.

Jihad in Christianity

Jihad is not a concept exclusive to Islam. This concept is prevalent in the teachings of Christianity. The concept of minor jihad, or war in self-defense, is found throughout Christian teachings. Jesus is well known for his emphasis on love, forgiveness, and “turning the other cheek.” Thus, some find it shocking to find Jesus advised the disciples to buy a sword in Luke 22:36: “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” This begs the question, “Did Jesus in this verse advocate the use of a sword for self-defense purposes?”

It is true that Jesus said to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:38-42. Nevertheless, many scholars do not believe pacifism is the essential point of his teaching in the Bible. The backdrop to this teaching is that the Jews considered it an insult to be hit in the face, much in the same way that we would interpret someone spitting in our face. This principle, rather than simply being a pacifist, would thus seem to be that Christians should not retaliate when insulted or slandered (see also Romans 12:17-21). Such insults do not threaten a Christian’s personal safety. The question of rendering insult for insult, however, is far different from defending oneself to protect oneself, family, friends, and society as a whole.

Self-defense, thus, is a tenet of Jesus’ teachings. Christ himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:14) When protecting one’s family or neighbor, a Christian is unselfishly risking his or her life for the sake of others. Therefore, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission.

Furthermore, the major jihad in both Christianity and Islam has the exact same meaning; to strive against sin. There is no mention in the New Testament of this “striving” (jihad) being tied to anything except the spiritual life. This is clearly illustrated when Jesus told his disciples to “Strive to enter in at the narrow gate…”

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