What Does Jihad Really Mean?

No, it's not perpetual war against non-Muslims, but the struggle to do good on earth for the sake of God.

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So, what is jihad really? Is it a tangible process that can be grasped every single day? Absolutely.

One day, during the time when the early Muslim community was struggling for its very existence, the Prophet and his Companions had just returned from a particularly difficult battle. As they were beginning to relax, he turned to his beloved Companions and said, “We have just returned from the lesser jihad, but now we are entering the greater jihad.”

“Oh Prophet of God, what do you mean?”

“I mean,” he said, “that the greater jihad is the struggle with our own egos.” At the heart of Islamic teaching is the idea that there is an aspect of ourselves, the


, which can be translated variously as ego, self, or soul, that must be brought into line with our highest understanding and intention. If this is not done, it will enslave us and lead us away from the greater good. If we follow our selfish egoism, if we are enslaved to a myriad of personal likes and dislikes, the reality of the Divine Presence will slip further and further from our consciousness.

The practices of Islam, the five daily prayers and the annual fast, as well as all the exhortations to moral and altruistic behavior that are the main message of the Qur’an, are there to free us from this slavery to the ego. It’s not that the human self must kill every desire in order to be spiritual. In fact, the good things of life are explicitly permitted, as long as we keep them within certain lawful bounds and do not exploit others to attain them. What Islam calls for is a healthy discipline and the surrender of the self to the remembrance of God. To live this way is for most of us a constant struggle with our egoism, but this commitment to struggle is what gradually purifies the heart so that doing the good, beyond personal self-interest, becomes second nature, our spontaneous choice.

The fast of Ramadan teaches us to look beyond our immediate cravings. The times of prayer require us to disengage from the incessant, compulsive activity of our lives. The giving charity teaches us that our wealth is not entirely our own and that generosity is actually a key to prosperity. Above all, keeping the remembrance of God in the center of our consciousness changes our perception of the meaning of life. It enables us to make greater efforts without being attached to the outcome of those efforts. “Trust in Allah, but tether your camel first,” said Muhammad. Trust in God is never an excuse for becoming passive. Struggle, effort, and a humble determination are the attributes of faith.

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