oPINION
The Counterintuitive Jihad
Jihad entails developing good communities, seeking knowledge – not extremism or assertive ignorance
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WASHINGTON: Gone are the days when avoiding religious and political discussions was essential to retaining friendships. Today one cannot open a newspaper without stumbling upon a story on murder and mayhem in the name of jihad somewhere in the Muslim world and op-ed pieces that implicate Muslims and Islam as a monolithic faith. Discussing religion and politics in public and private squares is essential to peace, coexistence, development and progress!

Among the most misunderstood and, indeed, most abused moral concepts of the 21st century is the doctrine of jihad. The doctrine was not fairly presented or objectively analyzed in the marketplace of ideas – merely shoved by the events of 9/11 onto a dichotomous stage of political theater designed to keep Islam and the West apart. The script was written, the actors played their roles. For some, the “clash of civilizations” was unavoidable.

As a multifaceted spiritual process to improve one’s relationship with Allah by enduring challenges, improving conditions, improving one’s own self and one’s relationship with family, neighbors, community, with all of God’s creation, jihad is abused by actors on both sides.

Its root word comes from J-H-D in Arabic, which means struggle or strive. There is no room for reckless violence, domination, transgression, chaos or oppression within that definition. Yet, for the average person in the West, Muslim or not, the word projects a negative picture of angry, sword-wielding Muslims waging holy war against non-Muslims.

Ironically, the concept of holy war, or xarb al-muqaddas, does not exist within Islam. In Islam, war is a situational phenomenon permissible only under specific conditions such as self-defense, ending oppression, or establishing law and order. Declaration of a war – violent struggle or jihad – comes only after all other means of remedying a given problem were exhausted. Only a legitimate state can foster necessary deliberation on the legitimacy of that final decision, maintain monopoly of its army’s arsenal and discipline transgressors.

Wars cannot be holy, because in Islam once something is holy, it remains holy. 

This is why violent extremists who arbitrarily declare themselves a legitimate authority do not win genuine, sustainable public support. The holy war concept erroneously associated with Islam is deeply rooted in the doctrine that inspired the Crusades.

According to the Prophet Mohammed’s teachings, the best form of jihad is the word of truth, or demanding justice before a tyrant – speaking truth to power. Since the Arab Spring – and before that with the anti-apartheid, civil rights and anti-colonial movements – history’s testimonies have long revealed that the most potent power in changing policies, compelling political concessions, reforming societies, is the united will of the people once they decide to take their rage to the streets, peacefully, even if that means risking their lives.

Violent extremists such Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda are notorious to omit or outright disregard the 13 years when the Prophet Mohammed and his companions endured persecution with perseverance before migrating to Medina, though this period of Islamic history is the foundation of the faith. Extremist groups do not care for the wellbeing of the people or resort to means other than violence to settle differences or resolve problems. “Where is your 13 years?” is a question they cannot answer.

In a Hadith, the Prophet said, “The greatest form of jihad is Jihadul nafs” – that aimed at purifying one’s self. The inward struggle requires three elements: self-knowledge, self-discipline and humility to recognize the transcendental objective of one’s actions and inactions. The Koran confirms this form of jihad in chapter 11, verses 1-10, in which God reveals that ultimate success belongs to those who morally purify their own selves and ultimate failure belongs to those who morally corrupt their own selves.

Mohammed was resolved on transforming a society primarily ignorant both in the moral and literal sense. The fundamentals of Islam are encapsulated in one of the shortest chapters in the Koran, chapter 103, verses 1-3. As an illiterate, his motto was “Innama al ‘ilmu bi ta’alum, innama al sabru bil tasabur, innama al hilum bi attahallum,” or “Verily true knowledge is gained through the act of seeking and practicing; verily patience and perseverance is gained through the act practicing, and verily the honorable act of forbearance is gained through practice.” In other words one must regularly demonstrate these qualities before being considered a sincere follower – an area in which violent extremists fail miserably.

Examples from history are worth studying: 

When Mohammad returned to Mecca after suffering persecutions, in the year 622, he ordered his oppressors to gather and posed the question, “What do you think I ought to do to you now?” Then, he released them with the words: “Today, no harm shall be done onto you. You may leave (or stay peacefully) for you are free.”

Muslim leaders, including Umar Ibn Al-khattab and Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi, displayed forbearance upon conquering the city of Jerusalem centuries apart, the 7th and 12th, respectively, and  recognizing as all great leaders do, that the high road and long-term view carry priority over satisfying one’s vindictive urges.

Ali Ibn Abi-Talib while engaged in a swordfight, also in the 7th century, struck his opponent’s weapon out of his hand. Ali lifted his sword to deliver a fatal blow, and his enemy spat in his face. Ali immediately disengaged. The enemy questioned Ali, who replied: “In the beginning I wanted to kill you for God’s sake; but, after you spitted on me, I wanted to kill you solely for my sake and that is not permissible in Islam.”

The likes of Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda fail to abide by the self-discipline that curtails reckless violence in all its forms. The answer as to why can be encapsulated in one sentence: ignorance about the teachings of Islam and an attitude that I call assertive ignorance. The violence-first doctrine has absolutely no trace in Islam.

Mohammed described Muslims in several ways: “Al Muslimu man salima annaasu min lisaanihi wa yadih,” or “A Muslim is the person whom the people of all faith or lack thereof are safe of his or her hands and tongue.” On another occasion, he said, “Al mu’minu man amanahu alnaasu bi dima’ihim wa amwalahim,” or “A faithful is the person whom the people of all faith, or lack thereof, trust him or her with their lives and their wealth.” The Prophet also said in no uncertain terms, “Inna Allaha Rafiqun yuhibu al-rifq. Wa ya’ti bil rifqi mala ya’ti bil u’nf,” or “Verily God is Gentle and Kind and loves gentleness and kindness. And He bestows through gentleness and kindness what He would not bestow through violence and cruelty.”

The means of extremists do not achieve blessings, forgiveness and acceptance.

It would require a personal jihad to break the shackles of groupthink. One must conduct one’s own study and form independent opinions about the nature of jihad and its religious context.

Life is indeed a perpetual struggle without which there is derailment of conscience and depression of the heart and the mind. In the absence of necessary moral restraints, the human being has the capacity to be savage – the capacity to manipulate, exploit, hoard, corrupt, oppress and carry out genocide against other humans. None of these are considered jihad.

Jihad is the constant motivation for gaining knowledge, to seek and create opportunities for ourselves, to cultivate good families and good communities, to spiritually develop and purify ourselves, find the sublime Creator, understand the purpose of our respective lives and find a common ground in which coexistence is possible.


Abukar Arman is Somalia Special Envoy to the United States. This article is based on a presentation he gave at an event, 19 October, 2012, organized by the Muslim Students Association of Ohio State University. On Twitter: @AbukarArman. Rights: Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online

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