Question: Jihad is a significant concept in Islamic tradition, yet it is being misinterpreted and misrepresented in our times. What does it mean? What are the differences between “the lesser jihad” and “the greater jihad”?
The word Jihad comes from the root “j-h-d,” which includes meanings such as struggling, endeavoring, and making efforts . It is commonly used in the sense of battling with an enemy. While this battle can be against an absolute enemy for the sake of protecting human rights, which are termed in Islam as “the five essentials” (usul al-hamsa), it can also be in regards to a preemptive, defensive battle against combatants who are about to strike. In both cases, such a jihad was termed by the noble Prophet as the “lesser jihad.” On the other hand, he used the term “the greater jihad” with reference to a person’s inner struggle within religious principles against the carnal desires, fancies, and evil impulses, along with the person’s steadfastness at such endeavors and efforts.
The lesser jihad refers to defensive battle; it is a temporary situation and dependent on certain conditions and principles. The greater jihad expresses a believer’s state of being in times of peace as follows:
- constantly self-critical
- ever vigilant against the carnal soul and the whims and urges that come from evil temptations, just like the “wakeful eyes” that keep watch on the borders to defend one’s country
- prepared against evil impulses that assail the heart and spirit
- preoccupied with an endeavor to keep away from any probable imagination of vices and evils
- living a life with contemplation and constant trust in the providence, guardianship, and protective sanctuary of the Divine that comes with utter awe and reverence before God
- entreating God not to go astray, without ignoring the slightest probabilities of straying
- making a strenuous effort to keep a stance against conceit, pride, self-admiration, boasting, bohemianism, love of status, seeking praise, holding grudges, envy, hatred, rancor, and other vices that lead to perdition, which are obstacles on the path to the citadel of faith
- together with making effort and perseverance in this respect, humbly seeking Divine approval and being in expectation of breezes from Him, nearness to Him, togetherness with Him all the time
- with such a mindset and heart beating with spiritual excitement, the tongue is unwaveringly voicing supplications: “O God, who turns hearts whichever way He wills, please save me from every kind of deviation and make me steadfast on the Straight Path, which is the course of those You love”
- besides these yearnings for Divine assurance, living with an awareness of putting trust in the ampleness of His mercy and constantly remembering Him at every breath is a noble attitude of self-effacement. Together with the importance of keeping up these essentials until the horizons of “annihilation in God” (fana fillah) and “permanence with God” (baqa billah) the person’s shaking like a leaf even at that peak by fearing to have a lapse is one of the indispensable components
Constantly and humbly cherishing the meaning of the attestation of faith in one’s heart and having relevant lyrics in one’s tongue mark the beginning of the greater jihad. The following are the essentials that determine the frame of greater jihad:
- To have a consciousness of perfect goodness (ihsan) as the essential principle in all acts of worship, including practices like daily prayers and fasting
- To fulfill obligations such as the prescribed alms and other donations willingly and with joy and without after-effects like seeing oneself as praiseworthy
- If the person is going on a Pilgrimage for instance, to do so with as much spiritual profundity and scope as they can store, with an awareness that they will be circumambulating along with angels in the heavens
- To lead a life with a sense of responsibility to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil” and thus warm others’ hearts towards these essentials,
- To avoid like the plague everything faith regards as forbidden or dubious
Lesser jihad is a jihad in the physical sense and refers to a defensive struggle for the sake of protecting the essential human rights defined by religion. As for the greater jihad, it is a struggle against Satan and his whispers, against our inner desires to commit sin and wrongdoing, against the dizzying lure of worldly status and enjoyments, against preferring the ensuing intoxication of this worldly life over the life of the next world, and against being prone to different vices and evils as well as their contaminating and paralyzing effects on our conscience. The Qur’anic verses that command making jihad for the sake of God and seeking His approval such as “Make jihad for God, by giving this struggle its due” and similar ones are indispensable prescriptions against deviations that we are prone to.