Jihad literally means striving or doing one’s best to achieve something, and its practitioners (mujahidin) are those who devote themselves fully to obtaining God’s good pleasure by opposing those forces that seek to defeat His religion and the upholding of His word. It is far more complex and abstract than actual war, known in Arabic as qital.
A major principle of jihad is enjoining good and forbidding evil (amr bi al-ma’ruf wa nahiy ‘an al-munkar), which involves promoting virtues and trying to block the spread of vices. The Islamic community, introduced by the Qur’an, is envisioned as a model community that makes every effort to exemplify what the Prophet brought to its members: Thus We have made you a community justly balanced, that you might be witnesses for all people, and the Messenger may be a witness for you (2:143).
Aspects of jihad
The first Revelation contained the command Read!, although there was little to read among the Arabs and most of them were illiterate. Thus, many scholars have deduced that this command means that believers should use their intellectual and spiritual faculties to discern God’s acts in the universe and His laws in the universe’s creation and operation, and thereby purify their minds of superstition through acquiring true knowledge based on observation and contemplation.
By satisfying their minds through studying the Divine signs in the universe and cleansing their hearts of sins, people secure a balanced life. Constantly aware of His supervision and of their need to seek forgiveness at all times, people will break their carnal selves’
forbidden desires and, through prayer, be able to do good deeds.
Thus Read! signifies an action. For God’s Messenger, pure and without superstition, it meant he would have to start his mission of informing his people of God’s revelations and how to read the signs in the universe in order to purify their minds of superstition and their hearts of sin. He would enlighten them, intellectually and spiritually, by instructing them in both the Qur’an and the universe: We have sent among you, of yourselves, a Messenger who recites to you Our signs, purifies you, and instructs you in the Book and in the Wisdom, and also instructs you in what you know not (2:151).
People are like raw minerals waiting to be purified and refined by Prophets, who remove the seal from their hearts and ears and lift the veils from their eyes. Thus enlightened, people can understand the meaning of the Divine laws of nature, which are signs of His Existence and Unity, and penetrate into the subtle reality of things and events. Only those who are guided by Prophets can attain the high status that God expects them to attain. Prophets also instruct people in the Book (the Qur’an) and in Wisdom (the Sunna ).
The Prophet teaches us what we do not know, and we will continue to learn from him about how to purify ourselves from sin until the Day of Judgment. Such great saints as ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Imam Ghazzali, Imam Rabbani, Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Bishr al-Khafi, and others who might have been Prophets if God had not ended that function with Prophet Muhammad, have followed this way.
Jihad, which enables believers to keep their belief vigorous and active, has two aspects. The first is the greater jihad, which involves fighting superstition, wrong convictions, carnal desires, and evil inclinations in the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. The second is the lesser jihad, which involves encouraging others to follow this path. While usually understood in a military sense, it is far more than that it consists of every action done by a believer or a believing community to advance the cause of Islam for His sake by ways of which He has approved. These two aspects cannot be separated, for success in one helps the believer achieve success in the other.
The Prophet perfectly combined these two aspects. Testimonials to his unequalled courage when facing his enemies are found in numerous history books, as are accounts of his spiritual battles during the nights and while fasting. Even though God had forgiven all of his sins, he once asked ‘A’isha, when she thought his persistence in prayer to be excessive: “Shall I not be a slave grateful to God?” He also would pray: “O God, I seek refuge in your pleasure from
Your wrath, in Your forgiveness from Your punishment, and with You from You. I cannot praise You as You praise Yourself.”
His Companions followed his example as best they could. They were as sincere and humble as dervishes in worshipping God at night. Sincere in their deeds, they did everything only for His sake. If our jihad is to be successful, this is the path that we must follow. We must defeat our pride, self-regard, and insincerity, and strive to acquire self-control, spread the truth to others, overcome our carnal desires and animal impulses, and encourage others to do likewise in order to obtain God’s good pleasure. The Prophet said about these two aspects: “The eyes of two people will never witness the fire of Hell: The eyes of the soldier who guards the frontiers and on battlefields, and the eyes of one who cries for fear of God.”
In Surat al-Nasr, the Qur’an describes both types of jihad: When the help of God comes, and victory, and you see people entering God’s religion in throngs, then glorify the praise of your Lord, and seek His forgiveness, for He is Relenting, Merciful (110:1-3).
Stages of jihad
After he received the first Revelation, the command Read!, God’s Messenger returned home in excitement. He was sleeping wrapped in a cloak “enwrapped” by the suffering of people and the heaviness of his responsibility, when God commanded him: O enwrapped one! Keep the vigil the night long, save a little (a half of it or diminish a little or add a little), and recite the Qur’an in measure. For We shall charge you with a word of weight (73:1-5).
The short period between the first revelation and the public preaching was meant to prepare the Prophet for what lay ahead. He was to keep night vigils and recite the Qur’an in measure, because during the night impressions are keener and recitation is more penetrating. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed: O enshrouded one, arise and warn. Magnify Your Lord, purify your robes, and flee defilement. Show no favor, seeking worldly gain. And, for your Lord’s sake, be patient (74:1-7).
Thus was the Prophet ordered to begin his mission. He began with his relatives and nearest kin, and then reached out to his tribe after receiving the revelation: Warn your tribe of nearest kindred (26:214). This was followed by public preaching and various reactions: derision, threats, torture of followers, offers of the most alluring kind, and boycott.
In Makkah, God’s Messenger never resorted to or allowed retaliation, for Islam came only to bring people out of the darkness of unbelief and into the light of belief, to free them from serving that which is not God to serving the One God, and to elevate them from the pit of “earth” to the height of “heaven.” Islam also came to establish inner peace, which leads to people being at peace with themselves, with God and nature, and then engenders peace on a global scale. As peace and order are fundamental in Islam, it always seeks to spread peacefully and only uses force as the last resort to maintain its existence against those who seek to maintain the corrupted order they built on injustice, oppression, self-interest, exploitation, the usurpation of others’ rights, and the blocking of freedom of belief.
Some rules related to jihad
Believers cannot exceed the limits established by God. In the case of jihad, some of these rules are as follows:
– As believers have sold themselves to God in exchange for Paradise (9:111), they cannot strive for any causes based upon fame, material gain, and racial or other similar ideological beliefs. They can strive only to attain God’s good pleasure.
– They cannot fight those who do not oppose them, cannot engage in indiscriminate killing and pillage, and must remain honorable while fighting (no deliberate killing of women, children, or the elderly, mutilation of corpses, and destruction of land and crops). Force is to be used only when there is no other choice (2:190).
We must consider jihad in its entirety. Those who say one thing and then do another cause nothing but trouble in the ranks of Muslims. Since they cannot discipline themselves and overcome self-regard, ostentation, and the desire to dominate, they bring only disharmony to the cause of Islam. On the other hand, those who live in almost total seclusion and try to attain some high spiritual station without working to promote the truth reduce Islam to mere mysticism, like certain aspects of yoga. Such people argue that a Muslim’s foremost duty is to acquire spiritual maturity so as to be saved from Hell. What they fail to realize is that those who regard themselves as safe from Hell are deceived, for God decrees that we should continue to serve Him as long as we live (15:99).
Thus we can say that jihad is a balance of internal and external strife. Reaching spiritual perfection and helping others do so are points of consideration. Attaining internal perfection is the greater jihad; helping others attain it is the lesser jihad. When you separate one from the other, jihad is no longer jihad. Indolence is born from one and anarchy from the other. However, we expect one Muhammadan spirit to be born. As is always the case, this is possible only by following and conforming to God’s Messenger. How happy are those who search for a way to salvation for others as much as they do for themselves. And how happy are those who remember to save themselves while saving others.
* This article has been published separately in The Fountain’s January-March 2002 volume and thus is not contained in the book.
- October 27, 2013
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