Excerpted with permission from "The Beliefnet Guide to Islam," published by Three Leaves Press/Doubleday.

The term jihad has taken on a very charged meaning in popular American culture, especially after September 11. Jihad is most often translated as “holy war,” a term drawn from our Western Christian vocabulary. In fact, the term “holy war” does not exist in the Islamic lexicon. Some claim jihad is the perpetual war to convert the “abode of war” (i.e. non-Muslim areas) to the “abode of Islam.” There are some Muslims who believe this as well, and there was a period in Islamic history when this was the official policy of the Muslim state, particularly during the Umayyad dynasty (680-750 C.E.) Yet some scholars suggest that the Ummayads put this policy in place in order to deflect attention away from their oppressive social policies and corrupt administration. In fact the most famous Umayyad leader, Umar ibn Abd Al Aziz, put a stop to this policy because he knew it was unsustainable. That jihad means a perpetual war against non-Muslims is supported neither by the Qur’an nor the hadith.

Jihad literally means “struggle,” or “striving.” It is not, as some have claimed, the “sixth pillar” of Islam. Jihad is a very broad concept in Islam; it is an activist principle: the struggle to do good on earth for the sake of God. In the Qur’an it is a word that is distinct from qital, which means armed conflict. In some instances, as a last resort, jihad can and does encompass armed conflict. Yet armed jihad has very strict rules and regulations, as we discussed earlier. When used in the Qur’an, jihad is very general in nature, while the verses that speak about qital are very specific and have a number of qualifiers. For example, verse 2:190, of which we spoke earlier in detail, has very specific parameters: fighting is allowed only against those who fight the Muslims. Jihad, on the other hand, is much more broad:

“O you who have attained to faith! Shall I point to you a bargain that will save you from grievous suffering [in this world and in the life to come]? You are to believe in God and His Apostle, and to strive
hard in God’s cause with your possessions and your lives: this is for your own good—if you but knew it!
[If you do so,] He will forgive you your sins, and will admit you into gardens through which running waters flow, and into goodly mansions in [those] gardens of perpetual bliss: that [will be] the triumph supreme!
And [withal, He will grant you] yet another thing that you dearly love: succour from God [in this world], and a victory soon to come: and [thereof, O Prophet,] give you a  glad tiding to all who believe." (61:11-13)

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 nafs, 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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