“Do you believe in Jihad?” he asked. It was neither a weird nor unfamiliar question. But coming from my cable guy, it did take me by surprise. Sarcastically, I wanted to say, you mean like do I believe in it on a personal level? That it is my duty to fight and kill infidels? Or do I believe in it as more of a social construct for mass management? Like the tooth fairy? Or Santa? Or the American Dream? Because as much as I appreciated his interest in open discussions, it’s quite an odd place to start a conversation with someone. Most of us have been in similar situations. While it may not be exclusive to Muslims, a lot of times, I feel like the questions we get pertaining to religion tend to address two separate issues: one being a knowledge gap where people just really don’t know about the religion and the other, a counter-narrative that is being driven by right-wing propaganda. But when it comes to this subject, specifically, it’s a little trickier.
So, while I know how I feel about the “J” word, I’m not sure if I’m ready to share that with someone I don’t even know. I grew up being taught that it is one of the strongest forms of devotion, that it is the highest calling in the manifestation of your duties as a Muslim. It is what every Muslim should strive for. So yes, I believe in it…is again, what I should have said. Instead, I chose to laugh it off and began that all too familiar conversation that I have with people who have the courage to ask what may seem to be invasive questions. “What’s so funny?” he asked. “So, I know what my answer is, but I think that you and I have two different understandings of that word.”
“Do you believe in Jihad?”
Today, most people assume Jihad infers Holy War, which is not incorrect, but still a
limited view of the word. Yes, I used a double negative – stay with me. There are other ways to understand this term in a more profound and holistic way. Jihad is a word that stems from the Arabic word Ijtihad (اجتهاد), which literally translates into diligence. So, when scholars of Islam compiled the varying schools of thought, it was based on decades of Ijtihad and familiarization with Islamic teachings. There are three forms of this word that are commonly accepted in the Islamic world today: a believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible, the struggle to build a good Muslim society, and Holy War. While I know the latter is the one that most people think of when they hear that word, the first is the one that is actually referred to as the greater Jihad by the Prophet Mohammed himself (may peace be upon him). That is the one that majority of Muslims I know refer to when they talk about jihad and that is the one that most of us “believe” in.
I recognize that we live in a world where Islam has been largely defined by what people
see on the news and read on the Internet. I can’t deny that there are those who are engaging in acts of criminality and calling it a holy war. I will not dishonor the deaths of thousands of people both in the West, but mostly in the Middle East who have perished due to fundamentalism.
Anyway, back to the cable guy. We all bring our personal biases when we engage in conversations with people. So, while I was taken aback, I wasn’t upset or offended, just a little frustrated because in true millennial fashion, he wanted a quick answer for a complex question. I think a better starting place would have been to ask me what it was that I believed in rather than asking what is, for all intents and purposes, a loaded question. Start with the basics. Ask me what my religion teaches about the world and the hereafter, perhaps. Let’s talk about how we Muslims view Allah. Let’s talk about things that bring us closer together rather than set us apart because, I assure you, there is more of the former rather than the latter. As a Muslim, I have been in a non-stop jihad since I moved back to the states in 2001, so, yeah, I believe in it — the toughest part of which has been responding to absurdities with compassion and patience.
For me, my greatest struggle has been the ability to own my Muslim identity. So, whether we’re talking about Jihad, or women’s rights, or freedom of religion, I understand why there seems to be inherent contradictions between what Islam teaches and what some of its followers choose to do or preach. (Can the same not be said of any religion, though?) It’s hard to take a look at what is happening in some Muslim majority countries today and deny the allegations. Somewhere along the way, we lost control of the image being portrayed. Radical organizations around the world have dictated the narrative, and I would like to say it’s because we let them, but it’s not that simple. It’s because their rhetoric fits the stereotype of what the media is choosing to portray. So, the vocal minority have been given a multitude of platforms, while the majority have been systematically ostracized. Nobody wants to hear what you have to say because they think it’s anecdotal.
Ask me what my religion teaches about the world and the hereafter…
So, here’s what the question “do you believe in Jihad?” does. It ostensibly takes those of us that are trying to rectify misconceptions, and admittedly legitimate issue within our communities, and lumps us all into the same group. I’m being asked to defend things that I, myself, reject. The narrative has shifted drastically from an issue of extremism within Islam to a clash of ideologies with modern social values. What is and should be seen as an issue of radicalization in the Middle East is now being portrayed as an issue of Islamization of the West which is simply untrue.
I’m not a strict practicing Muslim, and I don’t say that with pride, but simply to make the
point that I know many who are both in my family and in my community. These people have taught me love, compassion, generosity, kinship, civic responsibility, and other things that are central to my character. I refuse to stand idly by as they are demonized, even if I am not in the same place as they are spiritually. So yeah, I believe in Jihad. Jihad in its greatest form which is to struggle within myself to reconcile my relationship with God, while also standing up for those who may be further along in their journey than I am as well as those who are not. Maybe that’s why I was eager to become part of the MissMuslim team. Because while we may not all be in the same place, or of the same faith even, we do believe in countering false narratives collectively yet each in our own way.
This is not an attempt on my part to invoke pity. I’m trying to find a common starting point — to give us an opportunity to show you that we have more that unites us than sets us apart. Allow me to bring you into my life and I promise you I will. But don’t put us on the defensive because the same misgivings that you might have with the radicals are likely the same ones that we do as well. Victims of terrorism are Muslim 95% of the time, so, yeah, I believe in Jihad. A Jihad that Anas Ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“There shall come upon the people a time in which the one who is steadfast upon his religion will be like the one holding onto a burning ember.”
So, if I may, next time you want to have a conversation that has a healthier starting point, I would recommend the approach taken by someone I crossed paths with not too long. Briefly after meeting her while deployed in Iraq, she said, “So you’re Muslim, huh? What’s that like at work? I can’t imagine it being easy these days.” #TheJihadIsReal (get it?).