In Arabic the term jihad is derived from the root jhd, meaning “to strive” or “to exert effort,” and in the context of Islam this striving and exertion are understood to be in the path of Allah. The person who performs such a task is called a mujahid, usually translated as “holy warrior” in the Western media, as jihad itself is conveniently translated as “holy war.” One has only to recall that, in Sufi contemplation, the state of combating the distractions of the soul is also called mujahidah to realize how limitative such a current translation is.
To wake up in the morning with the Name of Allah on one’s lips, to perform the prayers, to live righteously and justly throughout the day, to be kind and generous to people and even animals and plants one encounters during the day, to do one’s jog well, and to take care of one’s family and of one’s own health and well-being all require jihad on this elemental level. Since Islam does not distinguish between the secular and religious domains, the whole life cycle of a Muslim involves a jihad, so that every component and aspect of it is made to conform to Divine norms. Jihad is not one of the “pillars” (arkan) of Islam, as are the canonical prayers or fasting. But the performance of all the acts of worship (ibadat) certainly involves jihad.
Jihad is, however, also required in the domain of transactions, or mu’amalat, if one is going to live an honest and upright life.
A story in Book 1 of the Mathnawi of Rumi about ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (RZT), the price of those who carry out jihad for Allah alone, is very revealing as far as the Islamic understanding for jihad is concerned. In a one-to-one battle with a great enemy of Islam who was a powerful warrior, ‘Ali (RZT) was able to subdue his opponent and throw him to the ground. As a last act of hatred the enemy warrior spat in ‘Ali’s face, upon which ‘Ali (RZT) immediately got up form his position of sitting on the enemy’s chest and sheathed his sword. The warrior became surprised and asked ‘Ali (RZT) why he had done such a thing. ‘Ali (RZT) answered that until then he was fighting for the Truth (al-Haqq), but as soon as he was spat upon he became angry; recognizing this, he ceased to battle because he did not want to fight on the basis of personal rage and anger. As Rumi puts it:
He spat on the face of ‘Ali (RZT)
The pride of every prophet and saint ……
And ‘Ali (RZT) responded,
He said, “I wield the sword for the sake of the Truth, I am the servant of the Truth, not commanded by the body.
I am the Lion of the Truth, not the lion of passions,
My action is witness to my religion.”
The action of this prototype of all authentic Islamic mujahids, which led to a change of heart in his enemy, should serve as a salutary correction for, first, those who in the name of Islam carry out actions based on rage but call them jihad and, second, those in the West who continue to speak of holy or sacred rage among Muslims who are trying on the basis of justice to protect their home and religion.