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Wresting Jihad from the Jihadists
May 1, 2016

I departed Brussels a few days before the March 22, 2016, attacks which killed over thirty people, injured dozens, and terrorized that city. Ironically, my purpose for visiting was to present a paper on the “Greater Jihad” at a conference titled “Countering Violent Extremism: Mujahada and Muslims’ Responsibility.” Over 250 Muslim scholars from all over the world attended this event, which concluded with a consensus statement regarding the true spirit of Islam, which all attending agreed, embodies peace, justice, the sanctity of life, and human dignity—and which never sanctions violence against civilians. Terrorism was unequivocally condemned.

My anguish upon hearing about the attacks was magnified given that I had just eaten a waffle and bought artisan chocolate in the beautiful city center; that I had just taken the gritty metro with the help of kindly locals, discovered a trendy Moroccan café to read in, and visited the quirky landmark Atomium. Turkish conference organizers, residing in Brussels, invited me into their home for dinner, and became my friends. I bonded to the city during this colorful bouquet of moments. I was pained that they and all of Brussels’ occupants were experiencing intense fear and trauma after the attacks, and I was deeply frustrated that our efforts to create a coalition of global Muslims willing to combat extremism were overshadowed by actual terror.

The diverse Muslim community in Brussels, about 6% of the population,[1] will likely now not only suffer from the aftereffects of the attacks, but from heightened discrimination by those that will conflate all Muslims with the perpetrators, who reportedly included gangster-types who enjoyed watching IS (Islamic State) videos while smoking marijuana and drinking beer, even though intoxicants are forbidden in Islam.[2] Many non-Muslims, and (unfortunately) a few Muslims as well, believe that Islam mandates and sanctions “jihad,” which they understand as a violent holy war against non-believers, or at least a religiously-sanctioned armed struggle. The reasons for which the IS attacked Brussels are complex, and include alienation, lack of social integration, the high number of radicalized Muslims in the region of the city called Molenbeek, and the desire to profit from social chaos and the rift between Muslims and non-Muslims resulting from the violence.[3] Indeed, the “Molenbeek Jihadists” likely justified their violence as fulfilling their Islamic jihad. In glaring contradiction, the global Muslim religious leaders gathered for that conference patently rejected that interpretation of the term, instead reaffirming the diverse and positive meanings “jihad” connotes.

The many understandings of jihad

The term “jihad” is employed in a variety of ways. The Arabic verb jahada means to strive or to make an effort on the path of God. The question remains: how, and towards what? Many Muslims understand their religious duty to improve the external, material world as their “lesser jihad.” The “greater jihad,” on the other hand, refers to the internal, spiritual struggle to control one’s basest instincts. The Turkish Islamic scholar and mystic, Fethullah Gülen, notes that “believers find peace and vitality in such a balanced jihad.”[4] Ignoring the greater jihad has significant negative consequences for our mental and physical health, our communities, and the greater society in which we live. Ultimately, as Gülen points out, “those that succeed in their greater jihad will succeed in their lesser jihad, and those that fail in their greater jihad will fail in their lesser jihad.”[5] In other words, if we are not able to conquer our negative emotions and reactions internally, we cannot have a constructive impact on the external world.

Obviously, those involved in the attacks appear to have little understanding of Islam, and have also neglected the greater jihad. In fact, to work effectively towards halting this violence, members of the global community would do well to consider the universal applicability of the concept of the greater jihad, which has a greater potential to lead to thoughtful dialogue, diplomacy, and an understanding of the root causes of terrorism, than does reactionary violence.

Those advocating violent jihad form a minority current of Muslims, perhaps inspired by some figures who emphasized the combative meaning of the term, laying the foundation for future radical Islamists.[6] Some other scholars believed jihad should be used to counter tyranny and abolish “Satanic forces,” and argued that the Qur’an mandated fighting Jews and Christians until “they are subdued.”[7] Jihad, they believed, was not meant to be merely a defensive war, nor temporary. Rather it must continually be exercised to establish the centrality of God’s authority, and to cleanse the earth of corruption.[8] However, many others believe aggression has no place in Islam, although Muslims are allowed to defend themselves and their communities from aggression. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Help your brothers whether they are oppressors or victims. You can help oppressors by making them stop their oppression to others.”[9] The Qur’an (2:190) states, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not aggress. Lo!  God loves not aggressors.” If your opponent moves towards peace, you must also; “But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers” (2:193).

In other words, jihad can take the form of physical defense, but Muslims are not to instigate the hostilities. Clearly, jihad does not sanction terrorism; contemporary mainstream religious authorities have rejected the use of that sacred term to refer to killing civilians. They follow the precedent of classical Muslim jurists, who also had no tolerance for terror attacks against innocent civilians, including poisoning, rape, abductions, or attacks against travelers.[10]  Jihad cannot be carried out in anger or for revenge. According to the Qur’an killing a human being unjustly is as violent as killing all humankind (5:32).

Even during the early rise of Islam, jihad was not used to convert Muslims by force, but to compel antagonistic non-Muslims to cease their aggressions towards the growing Islamic community, who were forging their way in a hostile tribal environment. Regarding this early period, Sherman Jackson writes, “The purpose of jihad, in other words, is to provide for the security and freedom of Muslims in a world that kept them under constant threat.”[11] Indeed, the Qur’an clearly states, “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—no forced conversions are allowed. In the Qur’an, the word “jihad” is most often mentioned in its religious sense, meaning “to strive religiously,” and does not indicate that Muslims should kill non-Muslims for the sake of a holy war.

Lesser and greater jihad

While jihad can take a myriad of forms, there are two types identified in Islamic discourse: lesser jihad and greater jihad. This terminology apparently comes from a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), after the Battle of Badr, when he returned victorious from fighting the idol-worshiping Meccans that opposed him. He said to a companion, “You have returned from the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) to fight the greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar).”[12] The greater jihad, he explained, was to struggle against one’s own passions. On another level, it’s his opposition to the idolatry that offers us the model for clearing one’s own soul from finding any trivial thing important. While some Muslims have questioned the authenticity of that hadith, the fundamental concepts are widely accepted in Islam. Sufis, in particular, have made use of those terms in their mystical understanding of that tradition.

Before turning to the potential of the greater jihad, let me elaborate briefly on the lesser form. The lesser jihad can simply refer to the external, material, physical struggle to better one’s world; for example, through combatting poverty, pollution, bigotry, or cancer. Your lesser jihad can be to raise children on your own, or to figure out how to get along with your in-laws. Life is a struggle; life is a jihad. According to a 2002 Gallup poll, the majority of Muslims polled in Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan defined “jihad” as one’s “divine duty,” “promoting peace,” “struggling towards a noble cause,” “a commitment to hard work,” and “assisting others.”[13] The vast majority did not mention any militaristic meaning at all.  The famous mystic and poet, Mevlana Rumi, offers a poem which illustrates a Sufi understanding of the lesser jihad:

The Sufi opens his hands to the universe
and gives away each instant, free.

Unlike someone who begs on the street
for money to survive,
a dervish begs to give you his life

These verses convey the urgency with which a Sufi mystic desires to give away everything, even his own life, to benefit the other.

Let us now shift our attention to the greater jihad. Frequently emphasized by Sufis, this is a spiritual struggle to seek God’s pleasure and closeness, to let one’s own light—God’s love—shine through, by metaphorically polishing the lamp of one’s heart. If a person can fully attain fana’, or the obliteration of one’s nafs or ego, she can do away with the binaries of mind and heart, emotion and reason, self and Godliness, and allow mindfulness of God to guide her actions.

Around 1915, Walter Bradford Cannon first described the “fight-or-flight response,” referring to the physiological processes involved when an animal perceives a threat.[15] In humans, this impulse also appears to be instinctual; without discipline, we are reactive beings. When we feel threatened, the tiny region in the back of our brain—the hypothalamus—sets off an alarm. This releases hormones, including adrenaline, which raises our blood pressure and increases our heart rate. If this happens frequently, we are at greater risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease, and impairment to our memory and concentration.[16] This impulse suppresses our use of judgement. We do not deliberate, or weigh options. Our egos react; our negative emotions take control. Within this cycle, we are unable to take charge of our own fears, hatreds, greed and, resentments; we are slaves of our own egos. Being reactive is stressful, aggressive, dysfunctional, and almost always leads to counterproductive outcomes.

According to the Mayo Clinic, humans are hard-wired with the fight-or-flight response. Perhaps this impulse was once helpful when ancient humans lived in primal hordes, because then they worried about being eaten or finding food to eat. Today, however, this instinct gives us life-shortening stress, and releases our own negativity on the world. This then flows in three directions: towards other communities, towards others in one’s own community, and back towards the self. Thus, the so-called “jihad” of the “Molenbeek Jihadis” is nothing more than violent, impulsive reactivity and undisciplined ego, resulting in considerable harm to those in Brussels, to other Muslims, and obviously to themselves.

Yet how can humans escape this negative cycle that appears to be genetically determined? To break this pattern, Islam emphasizes the purification of the soul through self-discipline. In other words, the greater jihad creates space inside the individual for God’s will to be remembered. Mevlana Rumi has stated, “The lion who breaks the enemy’s ranks is a minor hero compared to the lion who overcomes himself.”[17] Gülen encourages Muslims to struggle not against external enemies, “for the enemy is within ourselves.”[18] People can become enslaved by their passions, he argues. The greater jihad, in his view, leads to freedom of spirit.

The underlying concepts of the greater jihad are not unique to Islam, of course, but are found in many other traditions. One example can be found in the Buddhist Dhammapada (verses 334, 335, 336), which warns that if a person is unable to control his impulses, his miseries will multiply. The following verses illustrate this:

The craving of a person who lives carelessly grows like a creeping vine. He plunges from existence to existence, like a monkey seeking fruit in the forest. Whomever this miserable craving, this entanglement in the world, overcomes, his sorrows grow, like grass well rained upon. But whoever overcomes this miserable craving, in this world so hard to overcome, sorrows fall away from him, like a drop of water falling from a lotus blossom.”[19]

Returning to the Islamic context, however, several practices can help counter the fight-or-flight response.

Overcoming our nafs

To avoid being reactive, and to calm our brains when fired up, several practices may be of benefit. The Mayo Clinic advises us that if we feel we are about to experience the fight-or-flight response, we should be quiet, try to still the mind, and avoid impulsive responses. We are also reminded to seek support from others.[20] The Islamic tradition supports the wisdom of this medical advice. Prayer and spiritual meditation quiet the mind, and increase our ability to exercise self-control. Reading, or listening to the Qur’an, increases our ability to cope with stress, as does the devotional chanting of the attributes of God (the Sufi practice of dhikr). Meeting with other Muslims for devotional purposes supports our attempts to be mindful of the Divine. Regarding those who are on the spiritual path, Gülen writes, “Eliminating evil through goodness, loving ‘love,’ and being in a constant struggle against feelings of enmity are as sweet to them as the whisper of their own soul.”[21]

This concept of “eliminating evil through goodness” offers a conduit not only to deal with any evil or negativity within the individual, but also to confront and transform the specter of violence in our midst. Personal transformation leads to social transformation, Gülen implies. The global community has a responsibility to counter all forms of oppression and terrorism; however, the starting point is within the self.


Upon my return from Brussels, when I heard about the attacks, I felt fear —I only missed the attacks by four days. At the same time, I understood that others much more directly affected by the violence suffered immeasurably greater trauma. The peril in this cycle of violence is that no one is more dangerous than a person who is afraid. Allowing the fight-or-flight response to trigger a rush of adrenaline in our systems, creating panic, reactivity, and impulsivity, is not only hurtful to ourselves but to our relationships with others in our families, communities, and the greater social landscape. It is both tragic and predictable that many surviving victims of violence often respond with forms of violence; in this case, many devastated residents of Brussels might now be predisposed to retaliate against the Muslims and immigrants in their midst through discrimination, stigma, intimidation, or violent confrontations. The evening of March 22, however, people gathered in Bourse Square in tribute, many creating chalk drawings with messages of peace, love and hope, such as “we are one,” “BXLove,” “terror has no religion,” or simply a heart accompanied by the word “love.”[22]

This uplifting response touched the world, and mirrors the performance of the greater jihad. Gülen writes, “Love is the most essential element of every being, and it is the most radiant light, and it is the greatest power; able to resist and overcome all else.”[23] To release this love emanating from the Divine, we polish the lamp of our hearts through spiritual discipline, prayer, meditation, and mindfulness. Gülen adds, “…a person who is armed with love needs no other weapon. Indeed, love is strong enough to stop a bullet or even a cannon ball.”[24] Jihad is not a call to war, it is the expression of love.

[1] Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, “Table: Religious Composition by Country, in Percentages,” December 18, 2012.

[2] “Brussels attacks: Molenbeek's gangster jihadists,” BBC News Magazine, March 24, 2016.

[3] Jason Burke, “Why Did the Bombers Target Belgium?” The Guardian, March 22, 2016; Pieter Van Ostaeyen, “Why have IS jihadists targeted Belgium?” BBC World News. March 25, 2016.

[4] M. Fethullah Gűlen, Towards a Global Civilization of Love and Tolerance (New Jersey: The Light, 2006), 172.

[5] Ibid., 173.

[6] Michael Knapp, “The Concept and Practice of Jihad in Islam,” Parameters 33:1 (Spring 2003), 84.

[7] Sayyid Qutb, “Jihad in the cause of God,” Milestones (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2005), 40.

[8] Ibid., 41. 

[9] Gűlen, Towards a Global Civilization, 9. From Sahih Bukhari Vol. 3, Book 43, Hadith 624.

[10] Knapp, “The Concept,” 84.

[11] Sherman Jackson, “Jihad in the Modern World,” Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, edited by John J. Donahue and John L. Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 401.

[12] Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, “The book of invocation,” Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, translated by Kojiro Nakamura as Ghazali on Prayer (Tokyo, University of Tokyo, Institute of Oriental Culture, 1975), 167; also 'Ali ibn 'Uthman al-Hujwiri, Kashf al-Mahjub (The Revelation of the Veiled): An Early Persian Treatise on Sufism by al-Hujwiri, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (London: E.J. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1911, 2000), 200.

[13] Richard Burkholder, "Jihad – 'Holy War', or Internal Spiritual Struggle?" Gallup, December 3, 2002.

[14] Joan Chittister, “Rumi: Icon of Wisdom,” A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God (New York: Orbis Books, 2013). 

[15] Walter Bradford Cannon, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage: An Account of Recent Researches into the Function of Emotional Excitement (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1915).

[16] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Chronic Stress puts your health at risk,” Healthy Lifestyle: Stress Management, July 11, 2013.

[17] Jamal Rahman, Kathleen Schmitt Elias, and Ann Holmes Redding, Out of Darkness into Light, (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 53.

[18] Fethullah Gűlen, The Statue of our Souls (New Jersey: Tughra Books, 2011), 87.

[19] Glenn Wallis (translator), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (New York: Random House), 70.

[20] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Chronic Stress.”

[21] Gülen, Towards a Global Civilization, 120.

[22] Brian McBride, “Chalk Drawings of Hope, Solidarity Fill Brussels Square,” ABC News, March 22, 2016.

[23] Gülen, Towards a Global Civilization, 1.

[24] Ibid., 6.