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On the Meaning of Being Muslim

In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to “greater” and “lesser” struggle.

All of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.

The Centrality of the Struggle

God charges the faithful not just to be nice and avoid doing wrong in their personal lives, but instead, to support the good and prohibit or resist that which is incompatible with al-sharia:

“They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten in to do good works: they are in the ranks of the righteous.” (3:114)

This mandate, which is repeated over and over again throughout the Qur’an (e.g. 7:157, 9:71), has two distinctive characteristics. First, it is active rather than passive (i.e. it calls believers to take action, rather than delineating what they should merely refrain from or allow). Second, it is social rather than personal: enjoining and prohibition are actions which occur in the context of communities, undertaken with others, and for the sake of others.

Contrary to the assertions of many apologists, Islam does not mean “peace.” It means submission (to God). It is a calling which is answered in struggle and through struggle–against oppression, injustice, corruption, ignorance, and our own baser natures:

“Fighting is prescribed upon you, though you dislike it. But it is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and that you love a thing which is bad for you. But God knows, and you do not.” (2:216)

“And why should you not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated and oppressed? Men, women, and children whose cry is, ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect; and raise for us from Thee one who will help!’” (4:75)

“Be not weary and fainthearted, crying for peace when you should be triumphant, for God is with you, and will never put you in loss for your good deeds.” (47:35)

And not only is the call to jihad active and social, it is about the actions one takes in the world—not words, beliefs, or feelings. Here, from hadith:

“Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and this is the weakest form of faith.”

This sentiment reverberates throughout the Qur’an:

“Not equal are those believers who sit at home and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of God with their goods and their persons. God has granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit at home. Unto all believers has God promised good: but those who strive and fight He has distinguished above those who sit at home by a special reward.” (4:95)

“Those who believe, and suffer exile and strive with their might and means in God’s cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of God: they are the people who will achieve salvation.” (9:20)

“O ye who believe! What is the matter with you that, when you are asked to go forth in the cause of God, you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life compared with the Hereafter. Unless you go forth, he will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; this would not harm him in the least, for God has power over all things.” (9:38-9)

We can see that jihad is not peripheral, it is essential to Islam. And it is not a metaphor, but a mandate.

On the Use of Force

While Muslims are empowered to use any means necessary in the service of the struggle, violence often makes things worse. As we have seen with the Islamic State, as with al-Qaeda before them, it typically creates more chaos, more injustice, and turns people against Islam. This is not jihad, it is fitna.

That is, the error of the so-called “jihadists” is believing physical violence is the only or best way to carry out their mandate. In fact, there are myriad, far more effective, ways devote one’s life, one’s will, and one’s resources to the struggle. The error of the self-described “moderates,” on the other hand, is their shying away from coercion.

While the Qur’an is clear that there must be no compulsion in religion (2:256), and it repeatedly emphasizes that peace is best if one is dealing with the honorable (e.g. 4:128)—nonetheless, there are many bad actors who cannot be reasoned with or trusted, many who will cause great harm if they are not stopped. Virtually all social orders, to include secular ones, recognize this fact and empower authorities to exercise various forms of coercion against these toxic figures. However, sometimes the authorities are, themselves, the problem–and insofar as this perversion is institutional, one must speak to power in a language it understands:

“When they advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed: ‘Oh Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm: help us against those who reject faith.’ By God’s will, they routed them and David slew Goliath. And God gave unto him power and wisdom, and taught him whatever He willed. And had not God checked one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of disorder: but God is full of bounty to all the worlds.” (2:250-1)

There are ways to do this without imposing Islam on non-Muslims; it is a matter of methods and priorities. There are myriad ways to constrain and coerce, as needed, without direct violence—especially through collective action. And this leads us to the second principle error of the “jihadists,” they tend to focus on divisive issues rather than forming coalitions across the religious spectrum with people of good faith, prioritizing and building upon points of commonality:

“Oh ye who believe! Fear God as He should be feared, and die not except in a state of submission. And hold fast, all together, by the rope which God stretches out before you, and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude God’s favor upon you. For you were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became brethren. And you were on the brink of the Pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does God make His signs clear to you: that you may be guided. Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong: they are the ones to attain felicity. Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving clear signs: for them is a dreadful penalty.” (3:102-5)

Understanding our mandate in this way, there is no law which can prevent Muslims from implementing al-sharia in their societies, no security measures which can stop us from waging jihad:

We are engaged in the struggle when we expose and confront corruption; when we assist the immediate needs of the poor and work to restructure the socio-economic systems which impoverish; when we exploit the existing laws to punish the guilty and defend the innocent; when we resist Zionism as well as anti-Semitism to bring peace to our brothers and sisters in Palestine; when we stand in solidarity against oppression, knowing that submission to God often entails civil disobedience.

Even in pluralistic societies, or countries in which Muslims are a small minority—rather than trying to blend in or to assuage the ignorant and xenophobic through docility, we should be on the forefront of pushing for social reforms. It is our right as citizens, and our duty as Muslims. In the words of the prophet Jesus (Matthew 11:15), “He who has ears, let him hear.”

Musa al-Gharbi is an instructor in the School of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona, affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC). Readers can follow him on Twitter @Musa_alGharbi.

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Musa al-Gharbi is a cognitive sociologist affiliated with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC), where this article was originally published; readers can connect to al-Gharbi’s other work and social media via his website: www.fiatsophia.org

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