“Jihad” often conjures images of bearded men holding a gun in one hand and the Quran in another, ready to hijack a plane or blow up a building while crying, “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”), and hoping to get their 72 virgins in paradise.
Although people commonly associate jihad with holy war or terrorism, the true spirit of jihad has nothing to do with killing innocent people.
Jihad literally means to strive and persevere in the way of God.
Jihad can refer to internal struggle or external struggle, but most Muslims consider jihad-e-nafs, or the fight against one’s ego, to be more important.
When I was 16, I followed the concept of jihad-e-nafs. I spent my summer holidays trying to break down my ego and cleanse my soul. Jihad-e-nafs is a form of struggling in the way of God, and it requires that the person free herself of evil intentions, base desires and emotions such as hatred, jealousy, anger and pride.
And it’s really tough — especially when one is as short-tempered as I am.
I have always been drawn to Sufism, which is the spiritual and mystical side of Islam. Sufis aim to surrender to God, their Beloved, and block out worldly distractions. Sufism includes the concept of purification of the heart and Dhikr, or constant remembrance of God through prayer and recitation of God’s names.
I had grown tired of the Islam that most people I knew practiced: It was all about rituals, and there was no spiritual connection. Within me, there was a burning desire to connect with the divine, to submit to something greater than myself, because surrendering to God can be both humbling and empowering.
For the few months I practiced Sufism, which coincided with my attempt at jihad-e-nafs, I was at peace. I wasn’t worshipping the angry, judgmental God that people often perceive Allah to be — my God was loving, pure and forgiving.
Before, I had been confused, lost and disillusioned. Although I prayed five times a day and fasted during Ramadan, I felt something was lacking. Like many I knew, I focused on all that the world had to offer: I pursued materialistic desires and traditional ideas of success, but that didn’t fulfill me. Submitting to God calmed and nourished my soul. I would wake up at 3 a.m. to offer tahajjud, the optional night prayer; keep extra fasts; and even shed tears while praying.
I didn’t do any of this out of fear of hell or want of reward. I just wanted to be closer to God.
I read Rumi’s poetry and loved the way he portrayed his relationship with God: It was more spiritual and fluid. I had been searching everywhere for God but didn’t find that connection in places of worship or through rituals and rules — only in my heart. I saw myself as a wanderer traveling through this short life, living only to serve and return to God.
But this spiritual bliss was short-lived. Later that summer, I tried to understand my faith more and enrolled in orthodox Islamic classes. Before taking these classes, I had formed God in my own image and interpreted the Quran accordingly. My God was not sexist or homophobic: He had only love and compassion for everyone. But after reading the Quran with translations and going through the Prophet’s hadith, I realized that Islam wasn’t as peaceful and progressive as I had thought, which lead me away from God.
While the Quran portrays God in many places as forgiving and loving, it’s clear that Islam places a lot on emphasis on rules, some of which are rigid. And breaking these rules will land you in eternal hellfire.
Like so many moderate Muslims, I had accepted only the good and convenient parts of Islam while not acknowledging the harsher aspects.
But unlike so many Muslim apologists, I will not pretend that Islam does not have a violent streak.
Along with all the verses preaching peace, compassion and tolerance, there are also verses that urge Muslims to fight against people who threaten their religion. Of course, these verses need to be seen in context because many of them were revealed as instructions for specific wars, such as the Battle of Badr. But many Muslims refuse to see the Quran as less than perfect and instead claim that extremists distort the religion in order to justify acts of terror.
The Quran refers to warfare not as jihad but as qital, which is supposed to be carried out only under specific conditions. Most of the warfare at the time of the Prophet was carried out either for self-defence or to fight against enemies, not unlike wars fought by other religious groups centuries ago. That warfare cannot be applied to contemporary society.
Jihad was never intended to be a violent concept. In fact, Islam condemns terrorism, or hiraba, which is considered a crime against humanity. Besides, suicide is haram, or forbidden, and Islam does not sanction suicide bombing.
It’s problematic when people don’t see issues in context; it can also be extremely dangerous when people follow religion blindly without fully comprehending it. While I don’t practice jihad-e-nafs anymore, I’m still trying to understand religion more. We would benefit from studying and learning about the intricacies within religion instead of idealizing it and refusing to understand it more critically.
Shanzeh Khurram writes the Friday blog on feminism and religion. You can contact her at [email protected].