You'll recall that the primary meaning of the word jihad is not "holy war" but "struggle" or "effort." This is a very important religious principle. It reminds us that religion is never something achieved or finished. The revelation is given, but those who follow it have to make a constant effort, day by day, year after year, to put it into practice in a flawed and tragic world.
Each faith tradition represents a constant dialogue between a timeless, transcendent, or sacred reality and the constantly changing circumstances of life here on earth. We all have to struggle to make our scriptures and the insights of our tradition speak to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
These circumstances are always unique. The Sept. 11th events gave Muslims a terrible insight into the way their faith can be abused and made an instrument of evil. Now they must initiate a new jihad, a new effort to delve creatively into their rich faith traditions and emphasize as never before the compassion, justice, and tolerance that are central to the Qur'anic vision.
President Bush has pointed out that the terrorists' crime has "blasphemed Allah." And all over the world, Muslim leaders and scholars have also condemned the atrocity. But verbal declarations are not what religion is primarily about. The struggle, or jihad, must continue every day in the coming months, in practical ways. Every time a violent action or an intolerant word is spoken, the world becomes a worse place and the virus of hatred and evil spreads. But every time any single believer reaches out to others in compassion and sympathy, the world improved infinitesimally. That daily, hourly effort is the jihad required right now.
Muslims don't carry this responsibility alone. Jews and Christians belong to the same religious family; they too can use this trauma creatively to reaffirm the values that we all hold in common. The religions of Abraham all worship the same God; all three have a deep commitment to compassion, justice, and peace.
But obviously "God" wills nothing of the sort. What the Crusaders and the terrorists were doing was projecting their own hatred onto a Being they had created in their own image and likeness. God can all too easily be made to give a sacred seal of absolute approval to our most loathsome prejudices and policies. And now monotheists must be more careful of falling into this idolatry than ever before.
Far from being addicted to warfare, Islam insists on the importance of peace. The message of the Qur'an is a plural vision; it respects and values other traditions. When the Prophet Muhammad told the Muslim community that in the future they must pray facing Mecca (instead of Jerusalem, the Muslims' first orientation), he was trying to return to the time of Abraham, when, he imagined, believers didn't consider themselves Jews or Christians, did not argue about theological issues (such as the divinity of Christ) that nobody could prove one way or the other. They did not claim that their tradition had the monopoly on truth, or that other ways of being religious were inferior, but were united in their faith.
In the early days of his mission, Muhammad seems to have assumed that Jews and Christians belonged to the same religion: After all, they all worshipped the same God. When, later, he found that in fact they had serious theological disagreements, he was shocked. It seemed perverse and wrong to him that people who surrendered their entire lives to God should quarrel with one another about abstruse theological matters--it was God that mattered, not how people interpreted their experience of the divine.
It was not that Muhammad thought that everybody should belong to one giant world religion. The Qur'anic view is that God has sent prophets to every people on the face of the earth, who speak His word to them in their own language and their own cultural traditions. The Qur'an was a scripture in Arabic for the Arabs, though anybody of any race was welcome to join his faith community. Muhammad never expected Jews or Christians to convert to Islam unless they specifically wished to do so, because they had received perfectly valid revelations of their own. But he did think that they should stress the things that united them, instead of exalting their own tradition at the expense of other faiths.
Two years after his arrival in Medina, Muhammad was inspired by God to rule that Muslims must face Mecca and the Kabah when they prayed. This reflected his wish to go back to the spirit represented by Abraham, who had lived before the arrival of the Torah and the Gospel, and thus before the faith had been divided into hostile groups. Abraham, says the Qur'an, had simply been a hanif, a man of pure faith. Muslims were to remember this when they prayed facing the house that Abraham had built: They were now turning toward God himself and not toward any established religion.
"Verily, as for those who have broken the unity of their faith and have become sects--thou has nothing to do with them. Leave them to God, and in time He will make them understand what they were doing.
Say: 'Behold, my Sustainer has guided me onto a straight way through an ever true faith--the way of Abraham, who turned away from all that is false, and was no idolater.
Say ` Behold, my prayer, and all my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds."
This did not mean, of course, that the Qur'an denied the revelations of the later prophets--quite the contrary. The Qur'an insists Moses, Jesus, and all the great prophets sent to humanity confirmed one another's insights. But it does mean that religion and revelation should bring us together and must not separate us into warring camps.
We need to cultivate this "Abrahamic" spirit during these terrible days. All of us, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have used our religion to denigrate and even to persecute others. But Abraham is our common father, and if we can use this horror to realize that we must not exalt our own faith at the expense of others', perhaps something good can come out of evil.
If the atrocity is used by Christians and Jews to ostracize all Muslims and to denounce their faith as inherently evil, then it would not simply be Islam that was in danger of being hijacked on Sept. 11th, but Judaism and Christianity too.