Friday Thoughts 39
Those who struggle for Our sake - We shall guide them on Our paths, and God is with those who do good. (Surah 29:69)
Among the events that are remembered in the month of Ramadan is the Battle of Badr. Contemporaries perceived it as a miracle when a small band of three hundred Muslims from Madinah, some of them recently immigrated and hardly settled yet, unprepared for war and insufficiently armed but fighting for their existence, were able to defeat a thousand well-equipped Quraish from Makkah.
People frequently think of battles in the literal sense when they come across the term jihçd. For some Muslims this is assocoated with a romantic sense of chivalry or doubtful heroism; others connect it with "fire and sword" or extreme religious zeal and expansionism that are perceived as a direct contrast both to modern pluralist values and to ideals of gentleness, justice and harmony. The term itself has often been shamefully misused for aggressive purposes and even crimes in the name of religion and mistranslated as "Holy War". Its real meaning is struggle, effort in a very general sense.
In fact, fighting for survival, as in the Battle of Badr, may be a necessary effort and included in the wide range of meanings of jihād. But it is only one effort among many and as such termed qitāl, defense, while the term harb, war, anger, aggression, is not used in this context and, in Qur'anic usage, considered negative and destructive. Al-Harb al-muqaddasa, "Holy War", is an oxymoron. In Islam, self-defense, qitāl, is legitimate and permitted, provided that certain limits are respected, like the prohibition to use excessive means and to harm non-combatants, while every possibility to break the cycle of violence is to be utilized and every offer for ceasefire and negotiations is to be taken seriously. After all, fighting for peace is a contradiction in terms, and peace is the ultimate aim we are striving for.
On the other hand, many efforts that are included in the term jihād get far less attention in the public discourse. There is, for example, the effort to work for a legitimate, halal, income in order to support oneself and one's family and to enable one's children to get a decent education. There is the effort to acquire knowledge that is useful both for practical purposes, material welfare, and spiritual progress. There is the struggle to coping with the challenges of everyday life like trying to overcome obstacles to one's legitimate interests, to be patient and tolerant with fellow human beings who seem to make life difficult, or to deal with setbacks, bad luck and frustration.
The latter touches on another element: struggling with one's own impulses and inclinations. This might be much harder than the struggle with external forces. External struggle is supported and even prompted by our natural instinct of self-preservation against everything that is perceived as a threat and for everything that is perceived as beneficial. If religion were about asserting one's own identity profile or to defend and promote group or institutional interests, we could do without it altogether because this is already taken care of by our individual and collective instinct of self- preservation. On the contrary: our instincts can easily get out of control unless they are checked either by insurmountable external limits or by the voice of conscience that tells us when it is enough and how to differentiate between legitimate and exaggerated interests, between real and imagined threats. Heeding the voice of conscience is what religion is about. That is why principles, rules and methods like prayer, meditation, and fasting are taught by our holy scriptures. That is why great scholars like al-Ghazzali devote volumes to analyzing and controlling the motives behind our actions, to identify and deal with impulses like avarice, envy, anger, hatred, pride, miserliness and to train oneself to become more understanding, considerate and loving to other people. That is why once when the people came back home after one of the contemporary battles, the Prophet reportedly said, "You have come from the lesser jihād to the Greater Jihād." It is the Greater Jihād because it is a lifelong struggle.
I think this is what is emphasized in the statement, "Those who struggle for Our sake - We shall guide them on Our paths." One reason is that it was revealed in Makkah before the hijra, before the word jihād became associated with armed struggle. The other one is the wording in the Arabic: literally, it says, "Those who struggle in Us": the meaning points beyond any external struggle for God's sake to the unremitting, patient effort to work on one's own character and one's relationship with one's fellow human being and the rest of creation in the presence of the Creator.
In fact, the two aspects of external and internal struggle are not separate. Being engaged in the "Greater Jihād" changes the quality and direction of the "lesser jihād". This is what is pointed out by the Prophet's statement, "The greatest jihād is a just word in front of an unjust ruler." Among the examples we are presented in the Qur'an there is, as "a model for those who have faith, Pharaoh's wife", traditionally called Assia, who takes a consicerable risk confronting her tyrannical husband with the decision to save Moses' life and to bring him up; and there is Moses himself as a grown man, reminding Pharaoh that he is not the "highest lord" but accountable to the Master of the Universe, and demanding the release of the enslaved Children of Israel. Among the more well-known examples in Muslim history there is the Prophet's granddaughter Zaynab whose courageous appeal before Yazīd, the ruler who had killed her brother Husayn and many other family members, saved her nephew Zayn al- 'Ābidin's life and preserved the values they stood for.
Such courage of one's convictions implies both conquering one's own fears and standing up against injustice. It means discipline and conscientiousness - to which fasting is one of the means. It shows human greatness and promotes life, freedom, justice, respect and dignity. It is an invaluable tool in our efforts for reconciliation, understanding and peace. It is in this sense that I call everyone for a true jihād and wish all of you a successful remaining Ramadan and a happy 'Īd al-Fitr.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2007