Jihad, interpreted as striving for personal virtue, has value in cultures other than Islam, and can be applied in the struggle against violent extremism.

In this essay I outline the different meanings of jihad and possible applications in our own lives. Jihad has certain positive aspects which should inform our opposition to Islamist violent extremism.

The different meanings of jihad

Jihad is an expression of one of the great beauties of Islam, its unswerving commitment to righteousness - the righteousness which it finds in God or Allah. The word “Islam” in fact means submission to the will of God.

The Islamic Council of America website tells us that jihad translated into English means struggle or striving.

In a religious sense as described by the Quran and teachings by the Prophet Muhammad, “jihad” has many meanings. It can refer to internal as well as external efforts to be a good Muslim or believer, as well as working to inform people about the faith of Islam.

If military jihad is required to protect the faith against others, it can be performed using anything from legal, diplomatic and economic to political means. If there is no peaceful alternative, Islam also allows the use of force, but there are strict rules of engagement. Innocents – such as woman, children, or invalids – must never be harmed, and any peaceful overtures from the enemy must be accepted.

Military action is therefore only one means of jihad, and is very rare. To highlight this point, the Prophet Mohammed told his followers returning from a military campaign: “This day we have returned from the minor jihad to the major jihad,” which he said meant returning from armed battle to the peaceful battle for self-control and betterment.

More often we hear the terms “greater jihad” and “lesser jihad.”

According to John Renard in The Handy Islam Answer Book (2015), jihad is a struggle which can permeate every part of life. Struggle, indeed, is central to the culture which gave birth to Islam. “If for Buddhists, to live is above all to confront the reality of suffering, for Muslims to live is first to struggle, to strive all out” (p. 213). The struggle to survive in a harsh social, economic and natural environment is paralleled by the spiritual struggle, which Muhammad saw as the battle between our spirit or higher self and our ego or baser self. “Warriors of the spirit must take up the sword of self-knowledge against the fiercest enemy of all, their own inner tendencies to evil and idolatry,” says Renard (p. 272).

The jihad of personal striving, in Muslim tradition, may take many forms. Renard again (pp. 214-15):

Although the tradition does not feature the notion of “self-denial” quite the way some Christian traditions do, the concept of “struggle” or “striving” is multifaceted. One Hadith tells how a young man told Muhammad how desperately he wanted to join his fellow Muslims in defending the faith. Muhammad asked whether the young man’s parents were growing old. When he said they were, the Prophet told the youth to consider taking care of them as his jihad. Jihad includes even the smallest and most insignificant action, so long as it represents genuine effort and every struggle and sacrifice made “in the way of God.” Thus, expressing the truth, exhorting others to act justly, discouraging injustice, and sacrificing one’s own resources and even one’s life, if necessary, are part of meritorious struggle.

Jihad is not only a struggle in the ordinary sense but a struggle for justice – justice of all kinds – and an exercise of discipline, both personal and communal. It is also potentially something that encompasses the totality of a person’s being.

The utility of jihad as a concept for us

Though we in our predominantly Christian or post-Christian society come from a different culture with a different world view and different life circumstances, jihad in its spiritual meaning has a number of aspects that we might each subscribe to, regardless of our stance on religion.

Consider first the greater jihad, or jihad as personal striving. We would all, I hope, warm to its humanity, the multiple ways in which it puts itself at the service of other human beings and in general terms the promotion of virtue. The requirement for devotion to God might be alien to some, but not the practical and life-enhancing ways in which this devotion is expressed. Other aspects of jihad which deserve our respect are the discipline entailed, the absolute commitment to effort, and the nurturing of self-knowledge in regard to personal weakness. The idea of life as a series of combats may jar, for there are other paradigms equally valid (life as learning, life as a balancing act and so on) but it has its uses from time to time. We talk routinely about fighting addictions and fighting crime, for example.

Turning now to the lesser jihad, or public conflict, ours is one of the fortunate societies which have reached a relatively civilised position, preferring peace to war. Peace is one of our primary values; and if we go into armed combat, it is ostensibly at least to maintain other values, such as protection of the weak and protection of our own life and property. Being democrats, we look for a democratic process before making any commitment to armed combat. We also affirm the need to “legitimise” such a commitment, through reference to international law, international treaty obligations, and decision making by international forums such as the United Nations. Errors may still occur, for decision makers are sometimes loose in their idea of legitimacy, but on the whole we tread the path of virtue and try to do the right thing. In doing so, paradoxically we are engaging in our own form of jihad, or what we might call a jihad against violence.

Getting inside “their” skin

I wish now to consider in more detail the thought processes that lead to the lesser jihad with its proliferation of armed combat, terrorist activities, suicide bombings and human rights abuses.

There is widespread recognition that we in the West don’t properly understand what drives people – some Islamists - to commit to violent jihad. Clearly, the existence of the lesser jihad as part of Muslim tradition is only part of the story. There are reasons of the mind and the heart which go well beyond the core teaching which, as the Islamic Council of America and many others have observed, is constrained by the moderating influences of due process and respect for others. Seen one way, we are looking at pure evil, a hatred for other people that is so intense as to be beyond understanding. However, this is a simplistic and somewhat holier-than-thou view which leads us nowhere. Karen Armstrong in her book Fields of Blood (2014) has argued persuasively that the aggression of a modern jihad terrorist has much to do with political, economic and cultural factors, and that this violence is in part a response to perceived previous wrongs. Islamic State’s manifesto This Is the Promise of Allah (2014) confirms this view, talking extensively and passionately about a past where “generations … were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect.”

At this point it is worth noting also the views of the historian Bernard Lewis who gave us the phrase “clash of civilizations.” Lewis in his book Notes on a Century (2013) has identified a number of cultural differences between Islam and the West which constitute an ongoing barrier to understanding. Muslims, for example, tend to identify themselves with their faith much more than Westerners. People outside Islam tend to be seen in monolithic terms as the unbelievers or “infidels”, regardless of individual or national differences. Islam is also more closely linked to worldly power than Christianity, which explicitly separates duty to God from duty to Caesar. And Islamic society places a much higher premium on honour, with a corresponding abhorrence for any kind of shame, especially at the hands of people of different belief. These might be generalisations, but they help our understanding.

Below the level of generalisation there are many personal histories which are also telling. There are instances where the terrorist has had his or her own life, or the lives of associates, damaged in past conflict, to the point where revenge is a very real motivation. And even where the previous wrong has been more at the level of community or society, it is still real. In countries remote from the Middle East, distance becomes a factor with its own motivations. In some cases we may be looking at people alienated from society for a range of reasons not directly related to religion, for whom Islam just happens to present itself as an answer. There are also instances where people have gravitated to violent jihad through a very logical, rational train of thought, one which makes perfect sense to them (if not to us) in light of their own values, life experience and perceptions as to what jihad entails. Research has shown that, while some violent extremists come from disadvantaged backgrounds, others are well educated and integrated into society.

To proceed, we in the West need to exercise both humility and caution. To underline this point I refer to the novel Palace Walk (1956) by Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. One of the more engaging characters in this novel is Fahmy, a law student committed to opposing the British occupation of Cairo in 1919. Though a profoundly calm and well-adjusted young man, of loving disposition, he finds a new exhilaration and purpose in living after his life is threatened in street demonstrations. Mahfouz describes with insight and eloquence the state of his mind, now prepared to risk death in the pursuit of a magnificent goal, submitting his life to God. Misguided he might be – indeed he is later corrected by his father on the true Koranic meaning of jihad – however we can see well enough how he acquires the conviction characteristic of the suicide bombers of our own time. We have to remember too that in the culture of the Middle East, sacrifice has been seen not only as a duty but also as a lynchpin in the push toward progress. Sacrifice in the West is something comparatively watered down, at least in modern times.

An important point to note is that, in the mind of militant jihadists, both types of jihad - the greater and lesser – are to be pursued jointly. The combatant jihad may have, or seem to have, predominance, but the jihad of inner virtue is expected too. The Islamic State’s This Is the Promise of Allah makes this clear when it says: “You will be facing fitan (tribulations) and hardships of many different colors. … The worst of these fitan is that of the dunyā (worldly life).” In practice this seems to be belied by behaviours such as the rape of women and girls, but it is part of the manifesto nonetheless.

A counter-jihad

Whether or not as individuals we are comfortable with involvement in yet another war, the hard reality is that we in the West are categorically targets of Islamic State enmity. Islamic State is waging its current offensive mainly in the Middle East, in order to establish itself as a nation there, with borders; but this is not the endgame. This Is the Promise of Allah states, for example:

By Allah, if you disbelieve in democracy, secularism, nationalism, as well as all the other garbage and ideas from the west, and rush to your religion and creed, then by Allah, you will own the earth, and the east and west will submit to you. This is the promise of Allah to you.

Today, it says, the nations of kufr (infidels) in the west are terrified and the flags of Shaytān (Satan) and his party have fallen. The manifesto begins with a very explicit promise based on an interpretation of the Koran 24:55, where purportedly “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth … and that He will surely establish for them their religion” - this being the purpose for which the swords of jihad have been unsheathed.

If Islamic extremists have launched a form of jihad against the West and indeed anyone who offends their own idea as to what is right, logic dictates that we respond with our own campaign – our own counter-jihad. Regrettably, in established public discourse the term “counter-jihad” has become the property of extremists of the opposite persuasion, far right people who are against Islam and Muslims in toto. This is akin to the hijacking of the word “fundamentalism”, which wrongly connotes a lot of things that are not actually fundamental. Properly speaking, “counter-jihad” should mean simply a movement that opposes the Islamic (lesser) jihad. The issue then to consider is one of method, in other words exactly how we oppose that jihad. In doing so, we have to deal with the reality that our adversaries are well organized, holistic in their approach, and unrestrained by any niceties. We in turn have to be well organised and holistic, employing all available means – military, economic, social, psychological, technical – within the constraints of decency. There is enormous scope here for creative problem-solving.

What can we as individuals do, apart from wringing our hands, feeling increasingly perplexed, frustrated and disempowered? Each of us has to create our own opportunities to act, finding our own channels for speaking truth and enlightenment and extending the hand of friendship to other people of goodwill, in this case Muslims. At all levels, the ending of extreme violence demands extreme humanity, self-knowledge and commitment – all characteristics of the greater jihad. No effort should be spared in the struggle for truth and care for our fellow human beings.

Jihad means struggle or striving. Islamic tradition distinguishes between the “greater jihad” which is the daily striving for a more virtuous personal life and the “lesser jihad” which is the taking up arms against unbelievers, those who do not follow Allah.

Against its will, the West is now embroiled in a long-term struggle against Islamic extremism launched in the name of the lesser jihad. Part of this struggle is the difficulty of comprehending what moves violent and extreme jihadists. Clues are available, but we have to search for them. Part of the problem is that Islam comes from a culture with inherited values that are deeply antithetical to those of our own society.

Characteristics of the greater jihad – its love of humanity, its emphasis on self-awareness and commitment to disciplined effort – are qualities that we would do well to invoke in combating the lesser jihad which has been launched by Islamic State and its allies.