Friday, June 20, 2008

Balancing Jihad

Minaret - Click for Photo Credit About a year ago, I was asked to give a short (20 min) presentation on Islam to a group of campus police officers. Unfortunately I wasn't very well prepared--I had a presentation that was geared towards social studies students in my arsenal but that's about it. I hadn't been trained in speaking to law enforcement so overall I don't think it was one of my best. However, I did try to include topics which would be interesting or useful to them, rather than what might be interesting to students in a world religions course.

One topic I decided to include briefly was jihad. It intrigued me at the time how Muslims vs. non-Muslims view the concept of jihad. As we all know, the West will almost universally translate the word jihad to mean "holy war." And Muslims typically object to that translation as it is not only incorrect, but also imbued with negative connotations which don't help at all when historically examining the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the objections force emphasis on the other end of the spectrum--a personal, internal struggle. The average Joe isn't going to be able to reconcile two concepts so very far apart, I think--it's likely he will choose one interpretation to be correct, and one to be false. Now, while some people (I'm talking about Western non-Muslims) do take the opinion that jihad is in fact a peaceful internal struggle. But I think the majority opinion is the opposite--that jihad is violent, Taliban-esque, funded by Saudi Arabia, and trying to bring down the American "Empire." And they conclude that all of us Muslims who say jihad is personal, internal, or spiritual--they say we're liars.

Now, I'm not trying to blame the Average Joe for not being able to fully understand the concept. Perhaps the problem is the way we as Muslims think and talk about jihad. Maybe it is an issue we are afraid to talk about? Maybe we find the idea of a physical jihad (even though this certainly exists in Islamic history) to be somewhat at odds with American ideologies and try to downplay or ignore it. Or maybe we're just afraid of being labelled a terrorist if we dare say that jihad actually can (and sometimes should) mean fighting.

So, I'm writing this post in response to Naeem's post, Reclaiming Jihad, to share what I have learned from my sheikh about explaining the balanced concept of Jihad. I now typically include a slide on jihad in the presentations that I give to non-Muslims (from churches, schools, etc.,) although I tend to omit it in shorter presentations unless the issue comes up as a question from the audience. The slide itself is very simple, but frankly I think it offers a decent way to describe jihad to non-Muslims, and something that might benefit the Muslims as well.

Linguistic Meaning
Despite all the bad press it gets, the word jihad does not equate to holy war. And in fact that is one of the worst and simultaneously most common misconceptions about jihad. To better understand the meaning of an Arabic word, we go back to its root and literal meaning. The word jihaad comes from a 3-letter Arabic root, J/H/D, or the verb jahada. This word means to exert effort, to struggle, or to strive. So the word we are talking about, jihad, has to do with struggling or striving, and with regard to Islam we mean striving for the sake of our Lord, Allah (SWT).

Four Categories
When we sat down with the sheikh to develop this slide, he described jihad to us as having four types or four categories of jihad. Each of the four is necessary to explain, because leaving one out leaves one with an unbalanced impression of jihad. The four categories are:
  1. The struggle against the Self
  2. The struggle against Satan
  3. Delivering the message of Islam (da'wah) while being patient
  4. Using force -- Restricted to an Islamic state
Looking at the fourth one is probably making your blood pressure rise already. But calm down--we'll get there and explain it once we've gone through the other three.

(1) Jihad Against the Self

Self - Click for Photo CreditThis kind of jihad means striving to control the desires of the self. Our selves are hungry when we don't eat--our body literally tells us when it is time to eat. But yet, in Ramadan, Muslims act against the desires of the self, by refusing to eat even though they are hungry. The self is pleased with the physical world, and the things that give our bodies pleasure can try to lead us away from the path of righteousness. So we have to constantly struggle against our selves to keep our life in balance--spiritual and material.

For example, Muslims have to get up before the crack of dawn, every single day of the year, to make one of the five obligatory prayers. This task alone is a struggle for many Muslims in several regards. To start with, it means that the Muslim has to go to bed on time--especially when the prayer is at a very early time (4:30am) the next morning. That might mean foregoing activities which happen at night. It also means the Muslim has to leave his bed when it might be very cold outside. And on a cold, dark, maybe rainy morning, rousing oneself from the warmth of the bed can be very difficult, as the self tells the body to keep sleeping, to stay in bed where it is warm and cozy. On the other hand, it is a struggle to overcome that desire for sleep, to get up and wash up, and for some even go to the masjid to pray. This is an example of struggling against the self.

(2) Jihad Against Satan

Satan - Click for Photo CreditThis kind of jihad is similar to the first, but instead of tackling a person's own physical desires, he must also face the whispers of Satan (Shaytaan) who will come and try to lead him away from the path of righteousness. Muslims consider Satan to be a real enemy of the believers, and in fact all mankind, who tries to direct people away from God's path. The whispers are only one tactic, causing a person to get angry, or to talk about people behind their backs, and forget that what they are doing is wrong. The whispers will give a person excuses to delay his prayers and avoid doing good deeds.

An example of Satan's whispers that Muslims have to deal with constantly is during the five daily prayers. As soon as the prayer begins, it seems an endless string of random, irrelevant, or even useful facts, questions, or ideas pop into the person's mind. Maintaining concentration through all that and blocking it out can be a real, continuous struggle. During the prayer a Muslim is in many ways having a conversation with his Lord, and should be focused on that task, physically, spiritually, and mentally.

(3) Delivering the Message of Islam With Patience

Patience - Click for Photo CreditThis is a single category, don't be confused by thinking that patience alone as a jihad is a new category--having patience through difficulties could fit into either of the above categories, but this kind of jihad is referring to the patience one has when giving da'wah.

Da'wah--inviting people to the way of Islam--begins by simply conveying the message. And anyone who has actively engaged in giving da'wah to non-Muslims, or even Muslims who aren't attached to Islam, knows that sometimes the audience does not want to hear the message of Islam. They may ignore it, or worse, they might begin to mock Islam. They might mock other believers, or scholars. Even worse, they might slander the Prophet Muhammad (saaws), or ridicule the Qur'an, and even Allah (SWT). They might get hostile with the person who is trying to give da'wah--and that is where the patience comes in.

In the Sirah of the Prophet Muhammad (saaws), the hardest day of his life was not, as some might think, the Day of Uhud. It was actually the day he (saaws) went to Ta'if to tell the people there about Islam. But they didn't want to hear it, and in fact they were so hostile to the message and the messenger (saaws) that they sent their children running after him, throwing stones at him. But did he react with anger, or hostility in return? No. The Messenger of Allah (saaws) asked his Lord (SWT) to guide their children to Islam. This is true patience in conveying the message of Islam, which is the third kind of jihad.

The reason this category precedes the fourth is that in the life of the Prophet (saaws), this kind of jihad came first. The da'wah with patience came before any physical altercations was even allowed for the Muslims, meaning they were tortured in their own town (Makkah) but they did not have permission from Allah (SWT) to fight back.

(4) Jihad with Force

Umayyad Mosque - Click for Photo CreditOnce the Muslims emigrated to Medina, the first Islamic state was officially established. Instead of living as a small minority in a city hostile to their way of life, when they emigrated they became responsible for protecting the new state. That is why we say this kind of jihad is restricted to an Islamic state--it was not allowed for the Muslims until they moved to Medina. This category is also further broken down into two parts--force that is defensive, and force that is offensive.

A defensive jihad means that the Muslims (who are fighting defensively) did not initiate the conflict. It simply means that if they are attacked, that Muslims were given the right to fight back to defend themselves. It's important to note that for 13 years in Mecca the Muslims were not allowed (by Allah!) to fight back--not until they were in Medina. When they were allowed to fight, we can read in the Qur'an what means:
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...(Qur'an 2:190-191)
The significance of the bolded portions is that the Muslims were allowed here to fight only those who had engaged them in fighting. They were not allowed to begin fighting another group.

Some time after the Muslims were allowed to fight defensively to protect themselves against aggression, Allah (SWT) eventually allowed them to fight offensively. Why? To end oppression, to allow the spread of da'wah (note: to allow it, not to force islam on anyone), to prevent the torture of Muslims, and to end the oppression of people who are interested in learning about Islam but are forcefully prevented from doing so. This kind of jihad must be declared by a Muslim khalifa, and is an act carried out by an Islamic state, and not a "rag-tag" group of dissatisfied youths. And as it happens, though there are 56 Muslim countries, there is not an Islamic state with a khalifa.

Jihad Today
So if we don't have an Islamic state with khalifa, should we not do jihad? The answer is that we (by "we" I mean those of us Muslims who are in the West) are doing the first (3) kinds of jihad mentioned here, and must continue to do these three. Remember that the Islamic state in Medina was not established by jihad--so jihad is not a means to establish an Islamic state. The path to follow in that regard is the da'wah, by conveying the message of Islam.

Please forgive me for any mistakes I've made--they are my own. Anything good is from Allah.


brnaeem said...

AA- Amy,

Very nice, comprehensive post. Nicely written. But some questions persist, mainly the question of defensive Jihad. How does one define when a defensive Jihad is called for? Are Iraq/Afghanistan legitimate arenas for defensive Jihad?

Also, what about Jihad against other forms of oppression (non-military), such as economic and political?

Where does social activism, social work fall under the concept of Jihad?

You gave a nice presentation *introducing* the concept of Jihad, but isn't it time to start asking more advanced questions?

Amy said...

Wa alaikum as-salaam, Naeem,

I think the post actually does answer your questions... let me explain.

First of all, my sheikh is very adamant that physical jihad requires an Islamic state--and that there is no such Islamic state. That means that there isn't really a defensive jihad. It is the job of the khalifa to decide when jihad is called for, and without him then... there isn't one. So according to that definition, what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan is not exactly defensive jihad. Maybe self-defense, as their lands have been invaded and perhaps the people are suffering from that. But that doesn't make it jihad.

Regarding economic or political oppression, remember that physical jihad requires and Islamic state and a khalifa to declare it. This feeds in to your next question...

Social activism and social work--these are a means to ease economic/political oppression, right? And these fall under the third category. And putting them in that category really should help us to more clearly see our responsibility in this society before Allah--and it is to give da'wah.

That is the stage we are at right now--giving da'wah. Equivalent to the time when the Prophet (saaws) was in Makkah, persecuted. We must see that. We (as Muslims) cannot say we want to declare jihad, because we haven't reached that stage as an ummah--once the Islamic state has been established (comparison, the Prophet (saaws) moving to Medina) then physical jihad can be a concern. And an Islamic state isn't going to be established by jihad. Jihad was NEVER used to establish an Islamic state, that is a critical point. It was established by da'wah.

And this is our role today.

And people might misunderstand da'wah--we're not talking about converting people, but explaining Islam and calling everyone (including Muslims, and non-Muslims) to it. Da'wah is to tell the people what they need to believe, to teach them how to apply it in their lives, and then to implement it on the society.

Islam is a complete way of life for all mankind, but we have to start at the bottom, and build the foundation on Islam. Not on democracy, not on pluralism, but on Islam.

So is it time to start asking more advanced questions? No. We haven't progressed to the fourth category, we must continue in the third.

Anonymous said...


I concur with your findings on the role of "jihad" -- many Muslims in my own community are under this notion that anyone can declare "physical jihad" at the time and place of their choosing.

I understand your explanation of Da'wah -- it is calling all to the message and principles of Islam, whether they choose to accept it or not.

Please also read Tariq Ramadan, Yahya Emerick, Reza Aslan and Moqtedar Khan on the thread of the meanings(s) of Jihad.

Thanks, however, for a good baseline understanding of the subject. I couldn't have done better.