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The Counterintuitive Jihad

The Counterintuitive Jihad


Gone are the days when avoidance of religious and political discussions was essential to retaining friendships. Today discussing these two topics in the public and private squares is essential to peace, coexistence, development and progress!

At hand is the most misunderstood and indeed most abused moral concept of the 21st century: the doctrine of Jihad. Of course, jihad was not prescribed for humanity in the 21st century; it was merely shoved into the limelight 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 and the actors played their roles. To some the “Clash of Civilizations” was unavoidable, and the “’good” must prevent “evil,” preemptively in order to minimize risk.

For over a decade now “the Clashists” and their propaganda engines have been operating in full force to demonize Islam and Muslims by misinforming the average person (Western or Eastern, Muslim or non-Muslim).

So, what is Jihad?

Jihad is a multifaceted spiritual process to improve one’s relationship with God by enduring challenges, improving conditions, improving one’s own self, and one’s relationship with his or her family, neighbors, community, and the world and with all of God’s creation. Its root word comes from the equivalent of JHD in the Arabic alphabet, which means struggle or strive. In either case, there is no room for reckless violence, domination, transgression, chaos or oppression within that definition. Yet to the average person, the word jihad projects a negative picture of extremely 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 that is only permissible under specific conditions such as self-defense, to end oppression, or to establish law and order. Declaration of a war (violent struggle or jihad) comes only after all other means of remedying a given problem were exhausted. Such declaration is to be made only by a legitimate state that can foster the necessary deliberation on the legitimacy of that final decision, able to maintain monopoly on its army’s arson, and able to discipline any/all transgressors.

Wars cannot be holy because in Islam once something is holy, it is always holy. That is precisely why Muslims reject the “fallen angel” concept as in Lucifer (Iblis) in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And that is why violent extremists who arbitrarily declare themselves as the legitimate authority do not get genuine and sustainable public support. The holy war concept that’s erroneously associated with Islam is deeply rooted in the doctrine that inspired the Crusaders.

Against that backdrop, let us examine how this noble and moral concept impacted the character of the model Muslim- Prophet Muhammad.

According to the Prophetic teachings, “The best form of Jihad is the word of truth (or demanding justice) in front of a tyrant ruler”; in other words, speaking truth to power. Think about it. Since the Arab Spring (and before that the anti-apartheid, civil rights, anti-colonial movements) history’s testimonies have unfolding before our eyes that the most potent power in changing policies, compelling political concessions, and reforming societies is the united will of the people after they decide to take their rage peacefully to the streets even if that means endangering their lives.

For 13 years in Mecca, Prophet Muhammad and his companions endured the vicious persecutions of their oppressors with patience and perseverance until it became unbearable for the companions, which forced them to migrate to Medina. This profoundly disciplined and indeed painful experience is part of the Sunnah (the teachings of the Prophet), which is second only to the Qur’an as source of inspiration, legitimacy and authority in Islam.

Violent extremists such al-Shabaab and al-Qaida are notorious to omit or outright disregard this period of history, though the supremacy of this period of Islamic history is undisputed within Muslim scholars and religious leaders as it is the foundation of the faith. None of the current violent extremist groups have endured the aforementioned sufferings, cared for the well-being of the people, an attempted to resort to means other than violence to settle differences or solve problems. “Where is your 13 years?” is a question that they would not have an answer to.

Again in another Hadith, the Prophet said “The greatest form of jihad is Jihadul nafs” or the jihad aimed at purifying one’s own self. The inward struggle is the most difficult task that anyone can undertake. As the old cliché goes, the most difficult road to travel is the one that leads directly to you. Indeed, it is as it requires three main elements: self-knowledge, self-discipline and humility to recognize the transcendental objective of all one’s actions and inactions. The Qur’an confirms the importance of this form of jihad in Chaper 11: Verses 1-10 in which Allah (God) swears eleven times to stress upon the importance of the message before He reveals that the ultimate success belong to those who morally purify their own selves and the ultimate failure to those who morally corrupt their own selves.

To transform a society that was primarily ignorant both in the moral and letter sense, Prophet Muhammad, contrary to the prevalent opinion in certain circles, the fundamentals of the religion of Islam as encapsulated in one of the shortest chapters in the Qur’an Chapter 103: Verses 1-3. As an illiterate himself, he modeled the transformative values that he wanted to see in others. His motto was “Innama al ‘ilmu bi ta’alum, innama al sabru bil tasabur, innama al hilum bi attahallum” (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 has to regularly demonstrate these qualities before he or she could be considered sincere followers of the Prophet’s teachings; an area in which violent extremists of all shades fail miserably!

Here are three illustrative examples in history that are worth studying. First, is Muhammad’s return to Mecca — the Holy City in which he and his companions suffered vicious persecutions that made life in the city insufferable for them. He made his intention clear that he would enter the city peacefully and that he and his army would not seek to harm any of the oppressors who made life miserable for them if they were to seek refuge in places of worship, or in their leader’s home, or remained in their own homes but will only engage the able-bodied person who draws the sword against them. He entered the city with an exemplary humility.  Once the city was secured he ordered his oppressors to be gathered. Once they were gathered he asked a single historic question “What do you think I ought to do to you now?” At that teachable moment and an exceptional level of forbearance the Prophet said I shall do onto you what Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) did to his brothers who wronged him. He then he uttered these famous words: “Today, no harm shall be done onto you. You may leave (or stay peacefully) for you are free.”

Throughout history great Muslim leaders such as Umar Ibn Al-khattab (Second Caliph) and Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi (Saladin) would duplicate the same gesture of forbearance upon conquering the city of Jerusalem centuries apart. The individual leader must be disciplined enough to realize that the “higher road” is more noble and the big picture is more important than satisfying one’s vindictive urges to settle scores with an enemy. This, needless to say, demands selfless willpower to neutralize anger and keep matters in perspective.

Ali Ibn Abi-Talib (Fourth Caliph), while engaged in a sword fight against an enemy fighter, hit the latter’s sword so hard that it flew out of his hand and he has fallen to the ground. At that battle heated moment when Ali lifted his sword to deliver a fatal blow, the enemy fighter spitted on his face. Ali instantaneously disengaged and walked away. Perplexed by this strange behavior the enemy fighter hollered “What stopped you?” Ali 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.” Wars, and killings in general, have strict rules and only permissible to those who met the aforementioned guidelines and have the discipline of self-control.

So, why don’t the likes of al-Shabaab and al-Qaida abide by such guidelines that curtail reckless violence in all its forms and are devoid of such discipline? The answer could be encapsulated in one sentence: ignorance about the authentic teachings of Islam and an attitude that I call assertive ignorance. The violence first doctrine has absolutely no trace in Islam.

Once the Prophet was asked “Who is considered a Muslim?” He said, “Al Muslimu man salima annaasu min lisaanihi wa yadih” (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 was asked “Who is considered a Mu’min or a true Faithful?” He said “Al mu’minu man amanahu alnaasu bi dima’ihim wa amwalahim” (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” (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.) In other words, God’s blessings, forgiveness, and acceptance come through the opposite means often applied by Muslim and non-Muslim extremists.

It would require a personal jihad to break the shackles of groupthink, to do one’s own study, and to form one’s own independent opinion about the nature of jihad and its religious context. Unless one is in total denial, there is hardly any burning political issue that is entirely devoid of religion.

Life is indeed a perpetual struggle—a multifaceted internal and external jihad to do good—without which there is only 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 more savage than the beasts of the jungle. He has the capacity to manipulate, exploit, hoard, corrupt, oppress, and carryout genocide against people. And none of these destructive tendencies are considered jihad.

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

[This article is based on a presentation I had the honor to make at an event organized by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of Ohio State University on October 19, 2012] On Twitter: @AbukarArman




Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]