In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to a “greater” struggle, which is inside oneself v. the “lesser” struggle, which is in the world.
Ultimately, all of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.
The Centrality of the Struggle
God charges the faithful not just to be nice and avoid doing wrong in their personal lives, but instead, to support the good and prohibit or resist that which is incompatible with al-sharia (the Path). This mandate, which is repeated over and over again throughout the Qur’an (e.g. 3:110 & 114, 7:157, 9:71 & 112, 31:17), has two distinctive characteristics.
First, it is active rather than passive: believers are called to take action, rather than merely refraining from or allowing certain behaviors. Second, it is social rather than personal: enjoining and prohibition are actions which occur in the context of communities, undertaken with others, and for the sake of others.
Contrary to the assertions of many apologists, Islam does not mean “peace.” It means submission (to God). It is a calling which is answered in struggle and through struggle–against our own weaknesses, yes (2:44), but also against oppression, injustice, corruption and ignorance “in the world”:
“Fighting is ordained for you, even though it be hateful to you; but it may well be that you hate a thing while it is good for you, and it may well be that you live a thing while it is bad for you: and God knows, whereas you do not know.” (2:216)
“And how could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, ‘O our Sustainer! Lead us forth out of this land whose people are oppressors, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, a protector, and raise for us, out of Thy grace, one who will bring us succor!’” (4:75)
“And God knows all that you do, O men; and most certainly We shall try you all, so that We might mark out those of you who strive hard in Our cause and are patient in adversity: for We shall put to a test the truth of all your assertions. Verily, they who are bent on denying the truth and on barring others from the path of God, and who thus cut themselves off from the Apostle after guidance has been vouchsafed to them, can in no wise harm God; be He will cause all their deeds to come to naught. Oh you who have attained to the faith! Pay heed unto God, and pay heed unto the Apostle, and let not your deeds come to naught! Verily as for those who are bent on denying the truth and on barring others from the path of God, and then die as deniers of truth–indeed, God will not grant them forgiveness! And so, when you fight in a just cause do not lose heart and beg for peace: for seeing that God is with you, you are bound to rise high in the end; and never will He let your good deeds go to waste.” (47:30-35)
And not only is the call to jihad active and social, it is about the actions one takes in the world—not words, beliefs, or feelings. Here, from hadith:
“Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and this is the weakest form of faith.”
This sentiment reverberates throughout the Qur’an:
“Such of the believers as remain passive–other than the disabled–cannot be deemed equal to those who strive hard in God’s cause with their possessions and their lives: God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive. Although God has promised the ultimate good unto all believers, yet God has exalted those who strive hard above those who remain passive by a mighty reward–and the forgiveness of sins, and His grace; for God is indeed much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” (4:95-6)
“O you who have attained to faith! What is amiss with you that, when you are called upon, ‘Go forth to war in God’s cause,’ you cling heavily to the earth? Would you content yourselves with this worldly life in preference to the life to come? But the enjoyment of life in this world is but a paltry thing when compared with the life to come! If you do not go forth to war in God’s cause, He will chastise you with grievous chastisement, and will place another people in your stead–whereas you shall in no wise harm Him: for God has the power to will anything.” (9:38-9)
“O you who have attained to faith! Why do you say one thing and do another? Most loathsome is it in the sight of God that you say what you do not do! Verily, God loves those who fight in His cause in ranks, as though they were a building firm and compact.” (61:2-4)
We can see that jihad is not peripheral, it is essential to Islam. And it is not a metaphor, but a mandate.
On the Use of Force
While Muslims are empowered to use any means necessary in the service of the struggle, violence often makes things worse (2:190). As we have seen with the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda before them, these tactics typically create more chaos, more injustice, and turn people against Islam. This is not jihad, it is fitna:
“Because of this did We ordain unto the children of Israel that if anyone slays a human being–unless it be in punishment for murder or for spreading corruption on earth–it shall be as though he had slain all mankind; whereas if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he saved the lives of all mankind. And indeed there came unto them Our apostles with all evidence of the truth: yet behold notwithstanding all this, many of them go on committing all manner of excesses on earth.” (5:32)
“But remember that an attempt at requiting an evil may, too, become an evil: hence, whoever pardons his foe and makes peace, his reward rests with God–for verily, He does not love evildoers. Yet indeed, as for any who defend themselves after having been wronged–no blame attaches but to those who oppress other people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right: for them there is grievous suffering in store! But withal, if one is patient in adversity and forgives–this, behold, is indeed something to set one’s heart upon!” (42:40-3)
That is, the error of the so-called “jihadists” is believing physical violence is the only or best way to carry out their mandate. In fact, there are myriad, far more effective, ways devote one’s life, one’s will, and one’s resources to the struggle. The error of the self-described “moderates,” on the other hand, is their shying away from coercion.
While the Qur’an is clear that there must be no compulsion in religion (2:256), and it repeatedly emphasizes that peace is best if one is dealing with the honorable (e.g. 8:61-2)—nonetheless, there are many bad actors who cannot be reasoned with or trusted, many who are causing great harm, and will continue to cause great harm if they are not stopped. Virtually all social orders, to include secular ones, recognize this fact and empower authorities to exercise various forms of coercion against toxic figures. However, sometimes the authorities are, themselves, the problem–and insofar as this perversion is institutional, one must speak to power in a language it understands:
“And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: ‘O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succor us against the people who deny the truth!’ And thereupon, by God’s leave, they routed them. And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and imparted unto him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, corruption would surely overwhelm the earth; but God is limitless in His bounty unto all worlds.” (2:250-1)
“Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged–and, verily, God has indeed the power to succor them: those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than saying ‘Our Sustainer is God!’ For, if God has not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, all monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques–in which God’s name is abundantly extolled–would surely have been destroyed ere now. And God will most certainly succor him who succors His cause: for verily God is most powerful, almighty, well-aware of those who, even if We firmly establish them on earth, remain constant in prayer, and give to charity, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong; but with God rests the final outcome of all events. (22:39-41)
This obligation is incumbent upon all Muslims, however they are able–it is indeed the maqasid (telos) which the faith and the faithful are supposed to fulfill in the world: promoting and defending al-sharia for the benefit of all (24:55).
Here it is important to distinguish al-jihad (the struggle) from harb (war), and al-sharia (God’s law) from fiqh (the laws of men–to include believers’ fallible attempts to interpret and apply al-sharia). Because there are myriad ways for Muslims to fulfill their duty without imposing controversial eschatological or metaphysical premises on non-Muslims (60:7-9); it is a matter of methods and priorities.
For instance, there are strategies to constrain and coerce, as needed, without direct violence—especially through collective action. This leads us to the second principle error of the “jihadists,” they tend to focus on divisive issues rather than forming coalitions across the religious spectrum with people of good faith, focusing on and building upon points of commonality:
“They unto whom We have vouchsafed revelation aforetime know it as they know their own children: but behold, some of them knowingly suppress the truth–the truth from thy Sustainer! Be not, then, among the doubters: for, every community faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself, for verily, God has the power to will anything.” (2:146-8)
“And hold fast, all together, unto the bond with God, and do not draw apart from one another. And remember the blessings which God has bestowed upon you: how, when you were enemies, He brought your hearts together, so that through His blessing you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a fiery abyss, He saved you from it. In this way God makes clear his messages unto you, so that you might find guidance, and that there might grow out of you a community who invite unto all that is good, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong: and it is they who shall attain a happy state! Be not like those who have drawn apart from one another and taken conflicting views after all the evidence of the truth has come unto them: for these, it is for whom tremendous suffering is in store.” (3:103-5)
Understanding our mandate in this way, there is no law which can prevent Muslims from advancing al-sharia in their societies, no security measures which can stop us from waging jihad:
We are engaged in the struggle when we expose and confront corruption; when we assist the immediate needs of the poor and work to restructure the socio-economic systems which impoverish; when we exploit the existing laws to punish the guilty and defend the innocent; when we stand in solidarity against oppression, knowing that submission to God often entails civil disobedience.
Even in pluralistic societies, or countries in which Muslims are a small minority—rather than trying to blend in or to assuage the ignorant and xenophobic through docility, we should be on the forefront of pushing for social reforms. It is our right as citizens, and our duty as Muslims. The prevailing order is right to fear us insofar as it is unjust.
As Jesus put it, “He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15)