Greater & Lesser Jihad

In his short series on the subject of jihad, Dr. David Johnston now explains the concepts of the “greater” and “lesser jihad”, as found in the Quran. You may be surprised at the conclusion!

The hadith most quoted with regard to jihad today is the one in which Muhammad comes back from battle victorious. To the cheering crowds he says, “I have come back from the lesser jihad. Now starts the greater jihad.” Though this tradition was limited to mystical collections for centuries, it has now been adopted by nearly all Muslims as a prophetic call to focus on one’s spiritual life. But the “lesser jihad” has also taken a new turn. The Abode of Islam is any territory where Muslims are free to practice their faith, which today could be anywhere in the world. Apart from the circumstance of an invading army, leading jurists stopped mentioning the Abode of War a good two hundred years ago.

Perhaps the most representative conservative Islamic body in America, The Islamic Society of North America, issued a legal ruling last December: “Fatwa Against Religious Extremism.” It strictly condemns any violence done against innocent people, and especially as a result of suicide bombings. After quoting several verses in the Quran, it goes on to state three principles:

1. “All acts of terrorism targeting the civilians are Haram (forbidden) in Islam.

2. It is Haram for a Muslim to cooperate or associate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or violence.

3. It is the duty of Muslims to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities to protect the lives of all civilians.”

These kinds of statements can be found in different forms, especially after 9/11, on all mainstream Muslims websites.

Since I started this three-part blog on jihad with the Old Testament, it is fitting for me as a follower of Jesus to close with his words, “Love your enemies,” and “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Somehow, I cannot rejoice that a hardened murderer like Osama bin Laden was assassinated without the chance to defend himself in court. Likewise, I cannot in good conscience support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by my government, whatever the motive – though I know that many Christians can do so in the name of “Just War Theory.”

We are back to hermeneutics – how we choose to interpret our sacred texts. Jihad for most Muslims today is about striving to obey God in every area of their lives and, in extreme cases, about giving their life to defend their country. In my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation, I argued that “empire” was always bad, because it involves subjugating other peoples. From the fourth century on, starting with the Emperor Constantine, Christians have often confused God and Caesar, with morally disastrous results.

For Muslims to condemn empire-building is a bigger stretch, as Muhammad himself initiated expansionist wars that led to a string of Muslim empires. Yet even here, with time and changing sociopolitical settings, I believe current notions of jihad are leading to this kind of religious reinterpretation. So let’s keep talking, and let’s keep striving together (or “jihading”) to make this world a more peaceful, God-like place!


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