Mohammed Safi reflects on the new attacks on activist and community organizer Linda Sarsour for her usage of the word “jihad”.
Knighthood and knights are considered positive things in American culture and western culture more broadly. Although historically many knights have done horribly evil and barbaric things, as intelligent people most of us can parse that and say what we value about knighthood are the positive manifestations and meanings while not valuing the negative ones. Even if some of us believe most of the positive things are made up, we are intelligent enough to understand that the positive images in society are praiseworthy even if they are fictional.
The terms, warfare and soldier are not very different. Both of those terms can be viewed in a very positive light even though there are horrendous expressions of each both in our past and present. Generally people (even pacifists) can understand that there is a difference between a horrendous expression of oppression and warfare and a just war and just war theory. This is why soldiers occupy an almost sacred place in our public discourse. Even when some of them might not live up to it, people understand that many of them sacrifice a lot, and it’s really the positive image that people praise more than any one given person or act.
Defining our own sacred term
Given all of that complexity there are still people who want to tell us that jihad can only mean one thing, and is only represented by the criminal, theologically heretical, morally inept groups we see on television today. To tell Muslims they can’t define their own sacred term and that instead terrorist groups are the ones who get to define it is intellectually disingenuous and frankly ignorant. Why the hypocrisy?
Jihad means many things but its linguistic definition and the core way it’s used in our tradition is to strive and struggle against evil for good. The primary way we do that is we strive against our own egos, desires, and demons and work on our hearts. But we also strive and struggle in our societies to form better societies that promote goodness as opposed to evil. This is how Muslims generally use the term and how Linda intended it.
Jihad can also be used to mean just warfare. She didn’t use it with that meaning in mind since she used it to mean what I mentioned above. But since people are up in arms yes Islam does allow for the state to engage in warfare just like almost all nation states do. But it does so with clear limitations on what can be done and when it can be done. It protects the innocents both human and animal and it even protects the environment. Muslims might not practice this but this is what is found in all of our texts and in our tradition. Even more importantly those engaging in this type of just war are supposed to be people who have been spending their lives fighting their own desires and egos, their own greed and anger and violence.
If one followed such dictates then Jihad would be in only the most just of cases by the most spiritually transformed of people. Does that mean Muslims throughout history lived up to this, no. But some did. Just like not all knights and not all soldiers live up to the positive image we have of them. No one gets to hijack our sacred terms or dictate how we speak about our religion.
Resources for seekers
- “Be Unapologetically Muslim No Matter What” – Linda Sarsour
- Show The World What It Means To be Muslim – Linda Sarsour
- Nothing more American for American Muslims
- Jihad, Abrogation in the Quran & the “Verse of the Sword”
- The Menace of So-called “Jihad” – Imam Zaid Shakir
- ISIS: More About Meaningless, Disfunctional Lives Than Jihad
- War is not the Way: Peace is the Path by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
- The War Within Our Hearts – Imam Zaid Shakir
- ISIS – is it a Legitimate Expression of Islam?
- Leading Islamic Scholar’s Detailed Fatwa Against Suicide Bombing