Politicians and anti-Muslim activists frequently take to audiences and websites to criticize the term jihad as a form of Islamic supremacism, oppression, and violence. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, argue that jihad refers to a “holy war” against non-Muslims. Viewing the term jihad through these frameworks alone, however, would be playing into the hands of extremists who forego the other elements encompassed by the term jihad.
In the Islamic tradition, jihad has several different components, including personal struggles, such as the fight against an addiction; social struggles, such as the struggle to become tolerant of others; and occasionally a military struggle, if and when necessary, but only in self-defense. When asked, “What is the major jihad?” Muhammad replied: “The jihad of the self (or the struggle against the personal self).” Contrary to the rhetoric and misinformation about jihad in anti-Islam networks, Muhammad did not say that the violent struggle was the most important form of jihad.
The hysteria in the United States and abroad over jihad has brought me to consider the term through a Christian perspective. In this article, I hope to explore how forms of jihad are presented in Islam and Christianity. This exercise can help to find common characteristics of jihad so that Muslims and Christians can build bridges of mutual understanding and tolerance.
Although the term jihad is not literally used in Christian scripture, the idea of struggling is at the very heart of Christianity. There are a number of instances in the New Testament which provide guidance for Christians who are struggling with different problems or dilemmas in their lives.
One major aspect of the Christian jihad is the practice of non-violence. When the Roman soldiers arrested Jesus and brought him to Pontius Pilate, the man who contributed to Jesus’s crucifixion, Christ said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my [disciples] would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18: 35-36). Violence is antithetical to Jesus’s teachings. He did not require his followers to take up arms to show commitment to his teachings. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. In Matthew (26:53), Jesus told his followers that “... for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus, as you can see, encouraged his disciples to struggle against the desire to use force when frustrated or antagonized.
Similarly, Islamic scripture also encourages Muslims to struggle against the use of violence. The Qur’an (5:32), for example, notes that “.... If anyone slew a person unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land it would be as if he slew the whole humanity: and if anyone saved a life it would be as if he saved the life of the whole humanity.” In another Qur’anic passage (2:190), Muslims are told to “Fight in the case of God those who start fighting you, but do not transgress limits (or start the attack); for God loveth not transgressors.” It is clear that these two passages echo the Christian jihad of struggling in the name of non-violence.
Another element of the Christian jihad is to show love to those around you. Jesus wants Christians to “love your neighbor” and even beyond that, “love your enemies,” a point which arises in Luke (6:27). In Matthew (5:9), it is written that peacemakers are blessed, “for they will be called sons of God.” The New Testament demands that Christians struggle in the fight for peace, even if it means embracing your sworn enemies and those who wish to harm you.
The Qur’an also requires that Muslims search for ways of making peace instead of war. Muslims, for example, are required to speak well of others even if they are not believers of Islam. In the Qur’an (17:53-54), it is written that Muslims must “speak in a most kindly manner (unto those who do not share [your] beliefs).” There is also no way a Muslim can force others to believe in Islam, as the Qur’an (2:256) mentions that “there is no compulsion in religion.” The jihad in these contexts is one in which Muslims have to work on treating non-Muslims with respect and dignity.
The Christian jihad also requires that Christians do not retaliate “evil for evil.” Romans (12:17) demands that Christians “live at peace with everyone.” People who call themselves Christians, yet call for the demise of Islam and anything related to Muslims, should heed the demand of this verse and search for ways to build bridges for peace instead of fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry. In a similar way, Muslims who call for violent jihad should remember that the Qur’an (4:9) asks Muslims to leave others alone if they leave Muslims alone: “refrain from fighting... and offer [them] peace, then God gives you no way to go against them.”
The Christian jihad can be explored further in the wisdom left by Jesus’ disciples. Peter, for example, is considered “the rock” of Jesus’ church because he spoke about the struggle to maintain the Christian faith at all costs. In 2 Peter (3:14), he stated “... make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with [Jesus].” In this verse, Peter is highlighting one of the ultimate aims of Christianity — avoid wrongdoing and sin. A true Christian, such as Peter, cared more for fixing his own transgressions rather than attacking others for their sins. He encouraged Christians to struggle with overcoming their personal dilemmas first before bickering and complaining over the errors of others. In essence, he believed progress is rooted in individuals’s ability to change their attitude and behavior in struggling to adhere to the teachings of Jesus.
In addition to Peter, Paul of Tarsus also embraced the Christian jihad. Paul made “every effort to do what leads to peace” (Romans 14:19). In Timothy (6:12), he encouraged Christians to “fight the good fight of the faith,” which can be interpreted as spreading peace and love in the spirit of Jesus. In addition, in 2 Timothy (4:7), Paul stated, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” There is an underlying non-violent tone in these statements. Never did Paul ask Christians to take up the sword or use violence as a means of showing faith in Jesus.
Moreover, in 2 Peter (1:5-7), Peter stated that a Christian must “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance; godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” Peter’s emphasis on doing good and searching for knowledge mirrors the Qur’an’s frequent emphasis on ilm, which means “knowledge” in Arabic. Indeed, few religions in the world place so much emphasis on knowledge as Islam. “Knowledge” is mentioned more than 700 times in the Qur’an.
In the Qur’an (58:11), God raises in rank “... those who have been given knowledge.” Muhammad also emphasized knowledge in a Hadith in which he said that “seeking knowledge is a must for every Muslim, male or female, from cradle to grave in any part of the world.” Muhammad also stated in another Hadith that “the ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Christians and Muslims, therefore, share a similar jihad in terms of their obligation to seek out knowledge and apply that knowledge in good faith for the betterment of humanity.
Jesus, like Muhammad, taught his disciples and future believers that struggling is a fundamental element of the Christian faith. He told his disciples to “strive to enter in at the narrow gate...,” which mirrors the popular Muslim notion of staying on the “straight path” or practicing Islam to the best of one’s ability. Ultimately, Christians and Muslims are guided by their scripture to persevere in the face of their struggles. They are encouraged to struggle in this life, to maintain belief in God, in exchange for a higher reward when this life inevitably ends.
In essence, Christians and Muslims share a similar jihad. This jihad is one of non-violence, the love of humanity, the perfection of the soul, and the search for knowledge.