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The Meaning of Jihad

by Matt Schumann on October 13, 2009


The men quietly filed into the immaculately tiled room, their socked feet emitting a soft shuffle as they moved towards the couches on the walls. They sat, some with eyes closed, others looking around, waiting for the call to maghrib prayer. Silent prayers passed between their lips, each recitation recorded by the beads of a tasbeeh. They were preparing themselves for dhikr, a common practice of Sufis—Islamic mystics.


I watched these men from across the room. It was a Friday night two summers ago in Rabat, Morocco. My friend Geoff and I had been invited to attend a dhikr by Geoff’s host father, Ali. The service was held at a zawiya, a word used in the Muslim west to describe the place in which Sufis congregate and worship.


Before that night I had only read of dhikr and understood it as the process of repeatedly recalling God’s name or short prayers. Like most mystical traditions, the goal of Sufi practice is to create an intimate relationship with the divine. Sufis perform dhikr on a regular basis because they believe that by filling their minds with thoughts of God they will grow closer to him.


What Geoff and I witnessed that night was truly extraordinary. The service began with the maghrib prayer, which occurred around 8pm. By that time, about 30 men of all ages had arrived. Some were dressed in traditional robes, others in ‘normal’ street clothes. Geoff and I were asked to sit in the back of the room as the Imam invoked the men to prayer with a resounding “Allahu Akbar”.


After they prayed, we were able to resume our positions sitting among the men. The dhikr then began, starting with recitation from the Qu’ran. Because the entire service was in Arabic, it was difficult to understand the passages precisely. However, the beauty of Qu’ranic recitation is, in my opinion, unsurpassed. It is truly an art form.


From the Qu’ran, the men moved onto chanting short prayers and appellatives. These included sayings like “Allahu Akbar” (God is most great) and “Hamdu lillah rub al-alamin” (Praise be God, Lord of the Two World, i.e. heaven and Earth). The rhythm and tenor of these men made a profound aesthetic impression. It was impossible to avoid, and at times I found myself rocking along to their voices. Ali, our host, was responsible for keeping track of the repetitions and did so on his tasbeeh. I cannot remember how many recitations were voiced, though it must have been hundreds. All told, the service lasted three hours.


Additionally, the service was a powerful expression of religious devotion and discipline. Each passage from the Qu’ran was recited from memory. Qu’rans were available to the men, but none chose to use them. If anyone there had difficulty recalling the verses, he did a good job hiding it. In this way, and in others, the dhikr is an excellent example of jihad in Islam.


There is a common phrase used by Muslim writers to describe the task of the individual Muslim: jihad fi sabeel Allah. This literally translates to: ‘to struggle in the path of God.’ The meaning of this phrase is obvious, it describes the process of adhering to the prescriptions given by God in the Qu’ran.


The word jihad is used because this task is not easy. It is not easy to abstain from food and water during the day during Ramadan. It is not easy to pray five times a day. For the Sufis, it is not easy to memorize the Qu’ran (or parts of it) and to regularly dedicate time to dhikr. As with everything, especially religious practice, the circumstances of life somehow manage to get in the way. And so, to be a perfect Muslim, like being a perfect Christian or Jew, is a struggle. This struggle is jihad.


However, this word means something very different to the average American. The popular perception of jihad defines it as ‘holy war’. This is true, but only in a very limited sense. While its difficult to draw comparisons with English, we should consider, for a moment, the word ‘war’. While its main meaning denotes violent conflict, there are situations when, on a broad social scale, it assumes a meaning more akin to the struggle communicated by jihad. Phrases like ‘the war on poverty’ or ‘the war on hunger’ are understood my most of us to describe a figurative ‘war’ against social ills, a collective struggle to improve our society.


In Islam, jihad functions more in this sense than in the sense of a violent conflict. It is difficult for non-Muslims to understand this because they are kept away from Islam’s more holy sanctums. Mosques are usually closed to non-Muslims during times of prayer, so it is difficult for the ‘uninitiated’ to gain an appreciation for Muslim devotion. Additionally, newspapers do not sell copies by running stories describing the devotional habits of Sufi mystics. War is far more intriguing to the average person.

This portrayal of Islam, and of jihad in particular, is far from complete. That Friday night in Morocco, I saw jihad in action. I saw the product of careful preparation and training for jihad. But there were no bombs or guns. This was the true jihad, the struggle to be good in our lives and to remember God.

It is this idea of jihad that defines Islam for Muslims, as it should for non-Muslims as well.

Tagged as: Islam, jihad, religion


Image Attribution: on flickr.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Hannah Thalenberg October 13, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I really appreciate this article, Matt. This summer in Turkey, I attended a maghrib prayer with a Muslim friend. Wearing a hijab and going through the motions of prayer to the beautiful sound of the imam’s recitation (the language of which wasn’t intelligible even to most of the faithful there), I wondered how many people were kneeling in the direction of Mecca at the same time I was doing it. I wondered for how many years Muslims had done that every day at sunset. I felt immensely fortunate to be part of what was, quite literally, a movement. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a firm believer in peace, and I was replete with it during the service. How could that ever translate into literal war?


Shamoor October 14, 2009 at 1:54 am

Matt I think this is the most eloquent and contextually appropriate definition of the term jihad I’ve ever read. I never realized how detached Muslim prayer services must seem to non-Muslims especially since it is perfectly acceptable for non-Christians to participate in Christian services. Although honestly I don’t see why non-Muslims cannot participate in Muslim prayers if they so choose. Often I think Muslims ask non-Muslims to sit out of prayers simply because Islamic prayers tend to be very structured and non-Muslims who don’t know the ritual actions might feel uncomfortable performing them.


Hannah Thalenberg October 14, 2009 at 11:40 am

As a “participant non-Muslim,” I agree completely with Shamoor. On a train on the way to the mosque I attended, I requested a tutorial on ritual actions from my friend out of respect for those who would be actually praying (I didn’t want to offend anyone by, say, kneeling at the wrong time), and that proved to be immensely worthwhile. In a fiercely individualistic culture such as ours, the notion of “submission” and of performing motions collectively must be quite a turn-off, but I hope more people will take a few minutes to learn at least about the structure of Muslim prayers so as to take part in a ritual that may dispel a lifetime of misconceptions.

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