The Truth on Jihad

Dr. Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh

Nowadays, the word "jihad" is used wildly, often with a strongly negative, even terrifying connotation, within a discourse referring to "Islamic" terrorism and suicide attempts. It is time to clarify the real spiritual meaning of the "jihad". But before getting to the heart of the subject, one must take seriously the dangers inherent to the arbitrary comments of the sacred texts. Every individual can read the Quran, the Gospels, or the Torah, but not everyone is competent to interpret them because everyone projects their own state of mind in their interpretation. People who are stuck in obscurantist darkness are governed by their ego's drive and, consequently, they dwell in a time of ignorance, even while living in the twenty-first century. Their interpretation of the sacred texts, the Bible, the Gospels and the Quran, corresponds to the very low and highly materialistic level of their understanding and imagination. One cannot incriminate the text if its interpretation is erroneous.

Derived from the root "j-h-d" meaning "effort," "jihad" means "supreme effort." Whoever puts his efforts to maximum use in order to reach an important objective is a "mujahid." "Jihad" and all the words derived from it are part of the Quranic vocabulary and are used 41 times in the holy text. "Jihad" is -according to Shiite Muslims- one of the eight pillars of the Islamic faith, ordered as such: Salat (daily prayer), Soum (fast), Khoms and zakat (two religious taxes), Hadj (pilgrimage to Mecca), Jihad (using one's efforts for God), Amr bil Ma'rouf (to order one's spirit to do charity), Nahi menal Monkar (to prevent the ego from committing wrong acts). (According to Sunni Muslims, the religious obligations of Muslims are in the number of five: Salat; Zakat; Soum; Hadj; Jihad).

The Quran describes Believers as people who regularly perform their prayers, pay their religious tax, and make plentiful efforts by sacrificing their tangible assets and their "ego" in God's path. In other words, to become a good Muslim, it is necessary to respect the importance of jihad. But contrary to today's common belief, the religious obligation of jihad is utterly devoid of any warlike meaning. The words used in the Quran to denote war are "harb" and "ktl," with their derivatives:

1. Harb is a kind of war that can be declared by an individual or a group of people against moral or physical enemies. For instance, when the Quran firmly condemns in verse 275 of the Surat al-Baqarah (Sura of the Cow) "usury," it speaks thus: "God has permitted trade and has made usury unlawful. (2:275) Believers, have fear of God and waive what is still due to you from usury, if your faith be true or war (harb) shall be declared against you by God and His apostle" (2:279). Elsewhere, in Surat al-Ma'idah (Sura of the Table), the Quran speaks thus: "Whenever they [the enemies] kindle the fire of war (harb), God puts it out" (5:64).

2. Ktl means: "to initiate warring actions. Ktl can be negative if it is to mock justice and oppress the freedom of a people, and positive if it is to defend in a legitimate fashion one's or others' life, dignity, possessions, dwelling against an invading and belligerent enemy. God has allowed Muslims to wage war against the unfaithful when the Prophet and his companions were unfairly compelled to leave Mecca for Medina and repeatedly attacked by their enemies; verse 39 of the Surat al-Hjj (Sura of the Pilgrimage) which marks this historic event uses the word "ktl", not "jihad": "Permission to take up arms (yoktloun) is hereby given to those who are attacked, because they have been wronged. God has power to grant them victory" (22:39). Moreover the Quran hints at the military confrontation between the prophets' companions in a defensive position and their invading opponents in various verses almost exclusively using the word "guetal," of which here is an example concerning the history of the confrontation between the Israelites ruled by David and their enemies led by Goliath (2:245-251): "Have you not heard what the leaders of the Israelites demanded of one of their prophets after the death of Moses? 'Raise up for us a king.' they said, 'and we will fight (gtt) for the cause of God.' . . . 'Why should we refuse to fight (gtl) for the cause of God,' they said 'when we and all our children have been driven from our dwellings?' . . . Their prophet said to them: 'God has appointed Saul to be your king.' . . . they said: 'We have no power this day against Goliath and his followers.' But those of them who believed that they would meet God replied: "Many a small band has, by God's grace, vanquished a mighty army. God is with those who endure with fortitude.' . . . By God's will, they routed them. David slew Goliath, and God bestowed on him sovereignty and wisdom and taught him what He pleased."

Right after these verses, the Quran infers thus: "Had God not defeated some of the might of others, the earth would have been utterly corrupted" (2:251) while also remarking: "Fight (ktlou) for the cause of God and bear in mind that God hears and knows everything" (2:243). One may take it from this that, according to the logic of the Quran, resistance in the face of injustice, invasion and inhumanity is a justifiable act. It is, however, necessary to underline that, despite this observation, the word "jihad" never was used in any the verses quoted on this subject. Rather, the terms "ktl" or "moktleh" are used. In other words, "jihad" corresponds in no way to a military action, be it offensive or defensive. The word "jihad" means "a very important effort," and corresponds to an individual internal action each "Believer" is summoned to undertake to come gradually closer to the final goal of his esoteric ascent towards Allah. On this subject, the Quran gives this precision in the Surat al-'Ankabut (Sura of the Spider): "Those that fight for Our cause (jhdou) We will surely guide to our own paths" (29:69). And, in the same Sura, this verse completes the explanation: "He that fights for God's cause fights for his own good" or "He that fights, fights for raising his nafs" (29:6). ("Man jhd fannm youjhid strip nafseh"). Thus jihad is in fact only a fight that every Believer declares inside himself against his primitive drives and instinctive impulses. During this relentless and merciless fight, the Believer tries to further develop in him the human and chivalrous attributes, such as friendship, love, bequests upon others, while containing negative features such as jealousy, rancor, wickedness.

The jihad's objective is to fight the "Nafs". In fact, nafs does not really mean "soul" but rather "ego", the part of each of us that bears the instinctive drives where inhumanity, obscurantism and ignorance originate. Nafs is the most primitive aspect of the human being that corresponds to the reptilian brain. Generally man lingers within the law of the jungle under the pressure of the nafs. Nafs goes against everything that pertains to the divine spirit. The Persian mystic poet of the sixth century of the Hegira, Attar, compares the nafs and its characteristics to a jungle prevailed upon by different animals such as the wolf of savagery, the fox of guile, the bear of sexuality, the tiger of aggressiveness, the snake, the bat, the scorpion, etc. It is incumbent upon the Believer to fight all these animals to turn the jungle of his personality into a garden of flowers and perfumes. The famous seventh century Persian mystic poet Mowlana of Balkh -known in the West as Rmi- compares the nafs to a dragon endowed with seven hundred heads, each raised between heaven and earth. The prophets come on behalf of God to call men to wake up from the sleep of self-centeredness and to identify the source of danger concealed within themselves.

The Quran explains in Surat Yusuf (Sura Joseph): "Not that I am free from nafs; man's nafs is prone to evil"; (
12:53) and Moses launches this explicit call to the Believers "Turn in repentance to your Creator and slay your nafs" (2:54). Fighting the "nafs' bad deeds enjoining" ("mmar bissou'") is a necessary condition to develop the soul towards the superior values of humanity, unity, and divinity. By annihilating this first obstacle, the individual can conform bit by bit to God's image so that he can, at the end of a long and arduous journey, become his vicar. It is for this reason that the Believer can never part from his sword of devoutness, or ever give up this inner struggle. Mystics explain that man can really succeed in overcoming and surpassing these successive stages to finally, thanks to the jihad, achieve and internalize within himself God's image which is the Walker's only guarantee of protection against the vicissitudes of his nafs.

The prophets' first call to their addressees is to initiate a jihad, because this supreme effort opens the way to perfection: a jihad against one's own ego, because our own nafs is each of us' harshest enemy, and as long as we do not manage to conquer our nafs, we cannot develop the latent capacities that hide within us. Distinction between Jihads The Fogaha (Doctors in Islamic Law) have therefore distinguished in the Sunna (i.e. the Muslim tradition) three kinds of jihad, namely: 1. the biggest jihad ("jihad to al-akbar"), or that against the internal enemy; 2. the smallest jihad ("jihad al-asgar"), or that against the outside enemy to defend the religion; and 3. the noblest jihad ("jihad al-afdal"). The latter means: "saying the truth in front of an oppressor." (Hadith quoted by Muslim and Bokhari). One particular event that took place during the wars of Islam's early days clarifies the importance of the evolutionary and spiritual meaning of jihad. One day, after an army from a heathen tribe attacked the Prophet and his followers. Muslims organized resistance from their defensive positions and won the battle. After the enemy's retreat, the Prophet, upon finding Muslims very satisfied with their efforts and their victory, threw out at them: "We now return from this small battle to the big battle and engage into the biggest jihad." ("farajn mnal jihad alasgar el aldjihad alakbar") (Hadith quoted by Muslim and Bokhari and quoted by Mowlana in Manawi, 5:1). Understandably, these words shocked the Muslims who retorted: "But this is the most mortal enemy we ever defeated!" Muhammad then replied: "No, your biggest enemy dwells within each one of you; each must fight one's own ego." ("'d dovokom alnafs allati baina djanbeikom"). Mowlana of Balkh remarks on this case: "Consider as little brave a lion who bores the ranks of the enemies; consider as the real lion the one who subjugates himself" (Manawi, 5:1, p. 38).

The Prophet of Islam said: "Die before death takes you." (Hadith quoted by Muslim and Bokhari and recounted by Sana Sana/Divan Qassayed) In the opinion of theologians, interpreters and mystics, this sentence alludes to the principle of substantial evolution: because man is a being who develops and surpasses himself, he is the only "animal" who knows how to conquer his instinctive drives in order to allow his mind to be perfected. In fact, man consists in an existence and a substance. The latter is an evolutionary reality. Every individual can become at any time a demon or an angel. He becomes absolutely a demon if the ego's demonic drives gets the upper hand, or an angel if the mind's angelic attributes wins the day. The struggle between the demon and the angel ceases only once victory is granted to one of two parties. A fight between an eagle and a dragon symbolizes the taking place of this everlasting struggle.

The erroneous interpretations attempted by those unqualified to expound the holy texts have given way to a lot of admixtures regarding this hadith. Mohammed's word "Die before the death takes you" as well as the Quranic verse quoting Moses' word: "Turn in repentance to your Creator and slay your nafs" (2:54) do not encourage suicidal acts, but self-betterment. For suicide is, in the eyes of God and his prophets, the most abhorrent act since suicide puts a definitive end to our substance's evolutionary process. The Quran explicitly prohibits engagement in any suicidal act in this verse: "do not with your own hands cast yourself into destruction." (2:195)

Preserving one's life and that of others is the living individual's highest responsibility. He who commits suicide kills an individual: himself; now the Quran stipulates that "whoever killed a human being . . . shall be looked upon as though he had killed all mankind; and that whoever saved a human life shall be regarded as though he had saved all mankind" (5:32).