Islam: Day 15 – Should we all wage Jihad?

It’s common in the military to take Islamic words that wouldn’t normally be offensive and turn them into a derogatory term to refer to the enemy. “Hajji” is a good example. Making the Haj is a pillar of Islam, so the term shouldn’t really be offensive, but alas, the military culture can be crude and take non-offensive words and make them offensive.

One word that has made it beyond the military and has become “common” knowledge is the word “Jihad.” In the US, it is a term frequently associated with Muslim terrorists so Americans have come to associate the term with war, violence, hatred, etc.

However, the term Jihad is more nuanced than we believe. The term means, “to struggle in the way of Allah.”

In the Qu’ran, there are several applications for Jihad; this includes the internal (or personal), the external, and the social.

The external Jihad is what is most closely associated with holy war. Muslims are obligated to physically fight against evil and injustice when warranted.

Your reaction might be to think that the media got it right in this case, that Islam promotes holy war.

Yes and no.

It does allow for war assuming numerous, stringent criteria are met (including a declaration of war by a legitimate Islamic government) and that war is being waged to correct a severe injustice in the world.

However, this is not so different than some of the criteria in the Catholic Church’s “Just War Doctrine” that provides guidelines for conducting a morally sanctioned war.

When you also take into account that even the US must invoke higher values when waging war (fighting against tyranny, promoting freedom, etc.), you realize that all warring parties try to make their wars “holy” in some way.

In addition, there is no justification for terrorism in the Qu’ran. Terrorism done in the name of Islam is misguided and is really a reaction to geo-political events, rather than a true desire to ensure the principles of Islam are correctly implemented around the world.

The more interesting type of Jihad is the internal or personal Jihad.

Nearly all religions acknowledge that humans are fundamentally broken, flawed, or weak in some way. Though most of us want to do the right thing, we consistently and without fail fall short, time and time again.

The personal Jihad then, describes the struggle against the broken self, the temptations that lead us to make harmful choices.

If this seems dramatic, just consider trying to follow a diet or exercise regime.

Your broken self wants to eat potato chips and watch Netflix all day. After a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym and then have a salad. Even though you want to eat healthy and get in better shape, it’s a struggle to get yourself to do so.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, uses a metaphor of a elephant and his rider to describe the split between our unconscious desires and our conscious ones.

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.

The personal Jihad then, is the rider attempting to tame the elephant, to prevent the elephant from hurting the rider and others.

Instead of waging Jihad to achieve relatively trivial goals like losing weight to look sexier, Islam promotes waging Jihad to achieve a life congruent with God’s will. It encourages you to treat others kindly, even when it easier to be snarky or judgmental. It teaches you to donate a portion of your wealth to the poor, even if your elephant is telling you to buy a new iPad instead.

Really, all self-help books are a form of Jihad, just in different forms.

So perhaps we should reconsider our views on Jihad, and maybe even become holy warriors against our less holy selves.

  • Hakim

    Interesting read! ^^Do keep the project up!


  • Awesome! Finding that frame that you can believe deeply in is one of the most difficult things for us over-rationalized fools today.

    It’s much easier to make good decisions if we have an irrationally large belief about the importance of taking that action. Jihad, God’s Will, Honor… for a while it’s been the importance of Status but that even seems to be crumbling away in a lot of places.

    How have you injected the passion of Jihad into your mind?

    • In my experience it’s less about the “passion” of the concept of Jihad and more that the concept exists in the first place. The idea that there is a life-long internal struggle is a completely different way of looking at the world than the prevalent attitude that life should be easy. It’s actually a relief in many ways. It means that’s it’s normal to struggle, which puts our hardships in perspective.

  • “Terrorism done in the name of Islam is misguided and is really a reaction to geo-political events, rather than a true desire to ensure the principles of Islam are correctly implemented around the world.”

    Sorry, but you’ve been lied to. I know that the politically correct doctrine of our day says that we’re not allowed to say anything negative about the doctrines of Islam (which people refuse to accept is a different thing from negativity or bigotry about Muslims as people), but to say that there is *nothing whatsoever* in Islamic doctrine that condones violence or could be used to justify terrorism is nothing short of absurd.

    There are many horrible verses and laws in the Old Testament, but thankfully most Christians don’t take them seriously. There are just as many horrible ideas in the Quran as well, and thankfully, most Muslims don’t take them seriously, but a significant minority do, and endless research and polling data shows that that minority is far bigger than any of us on the left would like to admit.

    Even when jihadists explicitly say (as many of them have, and continue to do – Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood mass shooter, is an archetypal example) that they committed their crimes because they were motivated by a desire to be martyrs, to get into paradise, to punish infidels and apostates and to spread the word of Allah, the politically correct crew won’t listen, and they conclude that the jihadists must be deluding themselves and that their REAL motivations are what the political analysts had already decided it must be.

    I’m not denying that geopolitical factors play a role too – of course they play a role. But we’re never going to bring an end to violence and terrorism if we won’t have an honest conversation about ALL the factors that play a hand in causing it.

    You might want to read these excerpts if you think the Quran is a document that promotes peace:

    Belief leads to behaviour. Why people won’t admit this simple fact baffles and enrages me and is chipping away at the very bedrock of civilisation.

    • I don’t want this to turn into a thread about whether Islam or other religions are violent in nature. I’m not an expert, and wouldn’t do it justice.

      However, I am about to read Karen Armstrong’s new book Fields of Blood, a book entirely dedicated to this issue.

      Here’s a good article by her that summarizes sum of her viewpoints:

      I do believe the belief/behavior relationship is way more complex than you imply though, at least in my experience with this project.

      Regardless, I hope you can see some beauty in Islam in addition to some of the stuff you believe to be terrible.

      • I’m not an expert either, and I’ll freely admit that I have more research to do. And while I won’t be converting to Islam any time soon, I can definitely see that there is some “beauty” to traditional religious practices, despite all the bad things that often go hand in hand with them. Your blog has helped me realise some of that.

        Still though, it seems to me that there are different levels at which we can examine scripture and doctrine:

        1) What it says – as in, simply what words does it contain and how are they arranged? (This is objective.)
        2) What those words *mean*. (Anything from totally objective to totally subjective, depending on the particular passage and who you ask.)
        3) How people should behave based on the meaning of those words. (How objective this one is depends on your answer to #2.)
        4) How people in the world are actually behaving. (Again, this is objective.)
        5) What the link is between the previous 4 points, especially between #1 and #4.

        #5 is the important one, but we can’t answer it without examining the other four points first. At the very least (and this is such a basic point that it’s truly astounding how many people simply refuse to hear it), we need to have an honest conversation about #1.

        When someone engages the negative aspects of Christianity at the level of point #1 – saying something like “the Bible condones slavery” or “the Bible advocates the death penalty for adulterers”, no-one ever accuses them of racism or bigotry – and people rightfully point out that most Christians don’t take those passages seriously anymore, and the last few centuries of Christian thought have seen us reinterpret those passages and find reasons to ignore them.

        Yet when someone says something like “the Quran contains dozens of verses which advocate spreading Islam through any means necessary, including violence” or “Mohammed married a 9 year-old girl when he was 53” or “the initial spread of Islam throughout the Arabian peninsula was essentially a war of conquest,” no-one will hear it, and those simple facts get drowned out in accusations of intolerance.

        Of course most Muslims are peaceful – and there’s a lot of genuine bigotry and intolerance out there that we need to separate from the legitimate criticisms. Few of them take the nastiest parts of Islamic scripture seriously – but the percentage of Muslims who do is clearly higher than the percentage of Christians who pay attention to the nastiest parts of the Bible. Part of that is clearly due to factors such as lack of education and geopolitical grievances, but we can’t ignore the role that scripture plays. This is one of the most important issues we face today as a species and we desperately need an honest conversation about all five points I listed above. Is #1 really so much to ask?

        I’ve never read Karen Armstrong, and honestly some of the criticisms I’ve read of her have made me feel like I shouldn’t bother, but clearly she’s an influential thinker so I should probably give her a chance. I know your Islam month is over but I’d HIGHLY recommend the book “The Story of Mohammed” by Harry Richardson if you want to understand where I’m coming from. (I know that on Amazon it looks like a pretty amateur work, and the “related books” section on there don’t put it in good company, but trust me. I’d rate it as the most important book I’ve read in years. Give it a chance, it’s short.)

        If I’m wrong about Islam (and I hope I am), I don’t want to be wrong for any longer than I have to be – feel free to help me along the journey. In any case, I’m really enjoying your blog, and I’m learning a lot from it even as a non-believer. Looking forward to learning more.

        • 1) In the case of Islam, Jihad is only mentioned 40-something times in the Quaran. Only a small portion of these unequivocally refer to violence.
          2) We also need to take historical context into account, not just translation and interpretation.
          3) Most Muslims, in fact, are against violence, as proven by numerous polls over the past 10 years.
          4) Most are non-violent. I think you agree.
          5) People are complicated and have a range of motivations that explain their behavior. Religion is one potential factor.

          Re: Bible mentioning slavery

          Again, looking at historical context is important. This makes modern re-interpretations very important in religious discourse. For example, the saying “an eye for an eye” in the old testament is considered a violent rule. However, it was a vast improvement over the prevailing practice of the time of using disproportionate response to an injustice, say, wiping out a whole village for a single murder.

          Re: Mohammed and violence, marrying a 9-year old, etc. Again, need to look at the context of the times. Marrying a 9-year old is not what we think it means today. Marriage at that age meant that the girl was promised to Mohammed to be his wife, not that he would sleep with her at that age. Also, at the time women not being married was a serious misfortune for them that could lead to poverty, shaming, etc.

          As far as Islamic wars, you’ll see that many of those were cases of defense from other warring parties.

          If you’re interested in looking for causes of violence in the world, you may want to take a look at secular nationalism. WWI and WWII are good examples of non-religious ideology being used to justify violence. Or consider any current American war today. Though set off by attacks by extremist Muslims, we have no qualms about using nationalism to justify killing the enemy.

          Karen Armstrong made a good point that today it’s honorable to die for your country, but not your religion.You may find in your research that secular nationalism may have resulted in many more deaths than religion ever has.

  • Abdulrehman Bin Saad Syed

    Hi, I think you’ve misunderstood some of Islam’s teachings. According to Islam the human being is not flawed. He has been created as the best of the best and with the highest potential. Humans are even better than angels and are the best of god’s creation. The difference between Angels and Humans is that Angels have no animalistic self, they have no ego so, for them obeying god’s command is easy. They have no free will. Humans have an ego, an animalistic self and they struggle to obey god. But, because it is harder for us to obey god. God loves us more when we devote ourselves to him. According to Islam humans have the potential to be the best of the best. But, they also have the potential to be the worst of the worst.

    • Perhaps flawed is the wrong word. But regardless, the main point I like to emphasize is that there is a part of our nature that we must struggle with.