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.