The Supreme Jihad


Like many other soul-searchers, I chose to embrace the faith of Islam because of its powerful spiritual truths, its emphasis on peace and justice, its racial and ethnic inclusiveness and its charitable spirit towards the poor and needy.

Throughout the many years since I embraced this beautiful religion I have felt persistently bothered by the obvious fact that very few non-Muslims see it in the positive way in which I just described it.

After oil-endowed Arab (and Muslim) countries began to take back control of their own resources in the late 1960s, the Western states which had previously profited handsomely from their interference in those states became increasingly nervous about how best to maintain their dwindling influence in a region which was so culturally different and seemingly incomprehensible. The nearness to victory of Israel’s Arab neighbours in the war of 1973, and the indigenous liberation movement which grew in occupied Palestine (and in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982), also increased a strong western negativity towards Arabs and by extension towards the foundation of their culture: their religion.

Even more dramatically, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which ostensibly ushered in a theocracy which ran counter to the increasingly secular western values of modernity, saw Islam increasingly depicted and discussed in negative terms. Subsequent claims about the existence of an inevitable “clash of civilisations” have focused on Islam’s supposed incompatibility with modernity and the values of the West. The poorly conceived War on Terror that commenced after a small number of Muslim terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners on 11 September 2001 and succeeded in devilishly crashing three of them into civilian-filled buildings only heightened the West’s dislike and misunderstanding of Islam. Sometimes immoderate Muslim responses to the counterproductive invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to occasional provocations and insults conducted by westerners against Islam or the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), further diminished Islam’s reputation in western eyes.

Ironically, throughout most of this period, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims (who now number around 1.7 billion, or 23 percent of the world’s population) lived virtually unnoticed by the West as they quietly, patiently and peacefully got on with their daily lives in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Far from being fuelled by hatred of the West, or of anyone, ordinary Muslims everywhere focused on what they considered their real struggles in life: pleasing Allah, purifying themselves, raising moral children and being good neighbours. It is therefore very sad that, when one nowadays reads newspapers or scans the internet for stories on Muslims or Islam, one’s eyes inevitably fall often on a word that supposedly signifies the “real” struggle of Muslims: jihad, which is allegedly the Arabic word for the “holy war” commanded by Allah to be undertaken by Muslims with grievances against non-Muslims or apostates.

Jihad—one of the only Arabic and Islamic words undoubtedly recognised by virtually all westerners—does not of course mean “holy war”. If we were to translate “holy war” into Arabic we would end up not with jihad, but with al-harb al-muqaddasa, which is a made-up term with no meaning whatsoever in the Islamic tradition. Yet jihad has become such a provocative and misused term that, in my own university teaching career, I have virtually given up using it even in its proper context and with its proper meaning. I prefer to use other non-contentious words to describe what I mean. This is frustrating because I know that the Holy Qur'an does indeed contain different Arabic forms of the very word “jihad”. Of course, to give a sense of proportion and emphasis, I should add that forms of the word jihad are used in only 30 verses out of a total of 6,236 verses. Few of the 30 verses relate to legitimate armed warfare and not one of them relates to the forced conversion or subjugation of non-Muslims or to any insurrection against (even unjust) state authority.

In 2010 I was delighted to write the introduction to a masterpiece of Islamic scholarship: the acclaimed Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings by Dr Muhammad Tahir- ul-Qadri, a weighty and prolific scholar whose enlightened judgement and mastery of Arabic sources I had already come to respect. My hope remains that his prodigiously researched fatwa—which unambiguously presents a powerfully convincing assessment that, regardless of any intention, the evil of terrorism remains evil and must be exposed, opposed and condemned—will help to steer young Muslims away from the dangerous extremism that can grow in the absence of scrupulous, theologically sound, persuasive and accessible religious guidance.

I am now equally honoured to be writing an introduction to another book by Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri. Once again he has helpfully and expertly turned his attention to a subject that lies at the heart of the current inter-civilizational mistrust that sadly pervades the West’s relationship with the Islamic world: the aforementioned jihad.

This book demonstrates that jihad can indeed refer to a lawfully and morally guided military struggle during legitimate wartime. Yet this is certainly not jihad’s primary purpose or nature. Rather, Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri demonstrates through a masterful and nuanced presentation of relevant Qur'anic verses and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet a) that the ordinary, desired state of humanity is characterised by peace and cooperation, not by war and competition. Jihad therefore refers ordinarily to the inner struggle of every Muslim man and woman to divest themselves of their pride, temper, selfishness, laziness, and other unedifying and non-spiritual qualities, and to be the best examples of humanity that they can be in their interaction with their families and neighbours and indeed with other people everywhere.

Scholars and pundits often disagree among themselves, and it is certainly true that not everyone accepts the authenticity of the much-quoted hadith which describes the Holy Prophet returning from a battle and saying, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” Yet Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri shows with numerous trustworthy and authentic hadiths that this was precisely the Prophet’s meaning. He quotes him replying to a close companion’s question on which type of jihad is superior and giving this answer: “It is to strive in the way of Allah against your lower self and its lusts.” Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri produces many other sound hadiths to convey this unassailable point. For example, how much clearer can the Prophet be by saying: “The most excellent jihad is to strive against the self and its lusts in the pursuit of Allah’s pleasure”?

I know from my own efforts to purify my mind, heart and soul that my “struggle”—the best simple translation of the word jihad—involves constant and focused attention and exertion. It is neither easy nor something accomplished quickly. It is a lifelong effort which, like all hard work, will be tiring yet beneficial and rewarding. The ultimate consequence of a Muslim’s struggle in the cause of Allah is of course the pleasure of knowing that he or she is doing the Creator’s will without expectation of any further reward. Remembering and pleasing Allah the Almighty is the loftiest outcome from struggle.

How beautiful it is, therefore, to read the many hadiths in this meticulously researched study which highlight this very point. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri does not deny the legitimacy of sometimes needing to exert one’s energy defensively in the cause of Allah through armed struggle in a legitimate war between combatants. He explains this meaning of jihad. Yet he also wisely draws our attention to often-overlooked hadiths such as this: “Remembrance of Allah morning and evening is superior to breaking swords in fighting for Allah and spending generously in His way.”

What must those anger-filled “jihadi” warriors who appear almost nightly on our television news brandishing AK47s and ranting about their self-declared jihads think when they learn that Islam’s Holy Prophet saw things very differently? When he was asked “Which of the servants will be superior in degree in the sight of Allah on the Day of Resurrection?” the Prophet replied: “The men who remember Allah frequently, and the women who practice remembrance the most.” The Prophet’s questioner was amazed and asked, “O Messenger of Allah, [are they superior] even to those who fight in the way of Allah?” He replied: “Even if he wields his sword against the unbelievers and the polytheists until it breaks and is stained with blood, those who practise the remembrance of Allah will be superior to him in degree.”

We learn from Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s persuasive book that “remembering Allah” involves submission, reflection, repentance, earnest prayer (day and night) and study; hours and hours of it. It does not mean doing the minimum. It involves trying hard to build one’s entire life around the majestic kingship of Allah the Almighty. Back in the simpler world of the Seventh Century CE this was a challenge, a struggle, a jihad. In today’s hectic world full of tensions and distractions it is even harder. Along with sincere and dutiful prayer, the pursuit of knowledge is integral. “Whoever comes to learn or teach knowledge in my mosque,” said the Holy Prophet, “stands equal in rank to the striver who strives in the way of Allah.” He also stated that a person “performs the best jihad” by building a mosque so that the God’s words and ways can bring benefit to the entire community.

Lastly, this excellent book highlights something not often considered: the social (and economic) aspects of jihad. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri shows us cleverly, clearly and compellingly that jihad involves the struggle not only to improve our inner spiritual state, but also to increase the welfare, quality of life and moral purity of those around us. Speaking wisdom to a tyrant is “the best jihad”, the Prophet said, as is striving to feed the poor and alleviate inequity and suffering wherever it is found, and striving against the spread of moral degeneration. In sha Allah this insightful book will help non-Muslims to appreciate that jihad is not necessarily, let alone primarily, a military action, an armed struggle. It will also do the Islamic community a world of good by demonstrating to potentially misguided young men and women that their highest priority is not military adventurism, but is the peaceful pursuit of Allah’s pleasure through the purification of their souls and the altruism of their support to their neighbours.

Professor Joel Hayward (Shaykh Yusuf Moustafa Muhammad)
Chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Khalifa University
January 2015

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