Challenging Radical Islamist Interpretation of Jihad
The Supreme Jihad
Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri
Rupa, New Delhi
Reviewed by M. Irfan
Much confusion and ambiguity surround the term ‘jihad’. Radical fundamentalist self-styled Islamic outfits claim that the seemingly endless violence they have unleashed in different parts of the world are Islamically-sanctioned jihads. In contrast, their ideological Muslim opponents insist that this violence has nothing whatsoever to do with true Islamic jihad, and that, in fact, it is its polar opposite.
Much has been written, by scholars of diverse ideological persuasions, about jihad. Literally, the word denotes striving to one’s utmost. Often, Muslims use the term in connection with exertion or striving in God’s path. How this ‘striving in God’s path’ is actually defined varies considerably, however. What one ideologue sees as jihad in God’s path might be seen as fasad or as striving in the path of Satan by another.
Tahir ul-Qadri is one of Pakistan’s most well-known Islamic scholars. A prolific writer, he has emerged as a powerful voice for interfaith dialogue and reconciliation in recent years and as a strident critic of terrorism in the name of jihad that is playing such havoc in large parts of the world, including in his own country. In this slim volume, he critiques the discourse of radical jihadism and offers a refreshing alternative perspective on jihad. He accomplishes this in a rather novel way. He makes hardly any appearance in the text himself. Instead, he puts together Quranic verses, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (called hadith reports) and remarks by noted early Muslims (mainly ‘classical’ Islamic scholars) on jihad to convey an understanding of jihad that is vastly different from that of Islamist radicals. These quotations are enough to effectively challenge the radical Islamist interpretation of jihad without need for any commentary or elaboration.
Some Islamist extremists insist that Islam calls for Muslims to engage in offensive jihad, physical warfare in order to expand the borders of what they call the ‘abode of Islam’ or dar al-islam and to conquer what they term as the ‘abode of war’ or dar ul-harb, (these being terms that have no Quranic sanction but that are routinely deployed in both medieval Muslim as well as modern radical Islamist discourses). None of the scores of quotations from a range of Islamic sources contained in this book supports that understanding of jihad, however. Equally significantly—and again in contrast to Islamist extremists—none of them sanctions revolt against established political authorities in the name of jihad. The quotations that Tahir ul-Qadri puts together here provide an altogether different picture of jihad, with physical war (defensive war, that is) being just one, and not the most important, form of it. If radical jihadists argue that jihad bi’s-sayf, physical warfare (against non-Muslims or against supposedly irreligious Muslim rulers) is the most important form of jihad, the sources from the Islamic tradition that Tahir ul-Qadri provides clearly indicates that he vehemently disagrees. This does not mean that he rules out the legitimacy of physical warfare altogether. The quotations he provides indicate that he regards that such warfare is legitimate if it is rightfully resorted to in defence and directed against aggression, strife and wrongful rebellion. But that is not the only, or even necessarily the most important, form of jihad, he opines.
A key form of jihad, Tahir ul-Qadri suggests, is striving against our baser desires and our lusts, or the lower ego. This is what has been called in the Islamic tradition as jihad bi’n-nafs (jihad against one’s own [ill-commanding] self) and as jihad bi’l qalb (jihad to purify the heart of impure and harmful ambitions and selfish pursuits).
The book provides numerous references to substantiate the great importance of this form of jihad in Islam. It tells us, for instance, that the Prophet greeted people who returned from a battle, saying: ‘Congratulations! You have returned from a lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) to a supreme jihad (al-jihad al-akbar).’ It was submitted: ‘O Messenger of Allah! What is supreme jihad?’ The Prophet said: ‘Striving against desires and lusts.’
‘The (great) striver is the one who strives against his own self (i.e. lusts, indulgences and luxurious pursuits)’, the book quotes a hadith of the Prophet as relating. According to a similar hadith report, the Prophet said: ‘The most excellent jihad is to strive against the (ill-commanding) self and its lusts in the pursuit of Allah’s pleasure.’ Yet another hadith report relates that ‘He who strives against the base desires of (ill-commanding) for the sake of Allah performs the best jihad.’ Similarly, the Prophet is said to have declared: ‘The wrestling champion is not the one who conquers (the other wrestlers in the ring) but the one who reins in his ire.’
In addition to statements attributed to the Prophet, the book provides several other references, from the writings of noted ‘classical’ Islamic scholars, to stress the centrality of the jihad against one’s baser self. It quotes Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, for instance, as remarking, ‘Indeed, your enemy is the same (lower) self that lies between your sides. Strive against your lusts and appetites far more spiritedly than you do (in the battle) against your foe.’ We learn that Imam Ibn Battal commented that ‘Striving against the desires of one’s self is the most perfect jihad.’ Hasan al-Basri was of the opinion that ‘The antagonism against one’s own (ill-commanding) self is the most virtuous jihad.’ When Umar bin Abdul Aziz was asked, ‘Which jihad is most virtuous?’ he replied, ‘Combating your lusts.’ The book quotes Ibn Qayyim as stating, ‘Therefore, striving against one’s own self (inwardly) is prior to the fight against the enemy (in the battlefield), and that is its origin.’ According to yet another ‘classical’ Islamic scholar, Allama Mahmud al-Alusi al-Baghdadi, ‘Striving against one’s (inside) self is a greater jihad than fighting the enemy outside in the field.’
A second such peaceful form of jihad, the book tells us, is jihad bi’l mal, which signifies altruism, generosity and selfless spending on deserving people. The book quotes a ‘classical’ Islamic scholar as commenting that ‘Removing doubts and ambiguities and clarifying and elucidating the truth too is a form of jihad’. So also is jihad bi’l lisan, verbal striving in God’s path, in the form of discourse and oration, for instance. The book quotes Imam al-Dhahabi as saying that the ‘most superior’ form of jihad is to invite people towards God through verbal communication.
Another peaceful form of jihad, the book relates, is what jihad bi’l ‘amal, or striving for promotion of morality and human values. ‘The excellent jihad’, the Prophet is also said to have remarked, ‘is his who starts his day with a mind pure of any malefaction or injustice against anyone.’ Another peaceful form of striving in God’s path is jihad bi’l ‘ilm—or striving for knowledge. Here, too, the book provides inspiring Prophetic and other sayings to substantiate this point. A hadith report relates that the Prophet remarked: ‘Whoever comes to learn or teach knowledge in my mosque, he stands equal in rank to the striver who strives in the way of Allah.’
Striving for God’s remembrance and worship is also jihad, we are told. ‘Establish prayer because this is an excellent jihad […]’, says a hadith report. We learn that the Prophet is said to have remarked, ‘No action of man is more protecting against the Fire (of Hell) than remembrance of Allah’. When the narrator asked him ‘not even fighting in the way of Allah?’ the Prophet replied, ‘No, not even Jihad even if you fight so much that your sword breaks, and then you fight again and that sword also breaks, and then you fight on until another sword breaks.’
According to a similar hadith report, the Prophet said, ‘For everything to shine, there is something that causes it to shine, and the remembrance of Allah causes the heart to shine. There is no salvation from the torment besides the remembrance of Allah.’ The Companion submitted: ‘Not even fighting for the cause of Allah?’ The Prophet said: ‘(No) Even if you fight so much that your sword breaks.’ This means that remembrance of God is more protecting against the fire of Hell than physical jihad.
This little book of inspiring quotations on jihad is a welcome addition to the already enormous corpus of writings on a hotly-debated subject. It is a treasure for those in search of a meaningful religious response to terrorism in the name of Islam.