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The Battle against one's Baser Self


As Muslims, we must first engage in jihad against the evils within our own selves, against our bad habits, against the habit of lying, against the habit of not praying regularly, against engaging in acts that God and the Prophet have forbidden.

Friends! Let me clarify the distinction between war and jihad. Jihad is a form of Islamic worship and service of God. Jihad does not simply mean wielding a sword and attacking the enemy. The first stage of jihad is to engage in battle against one's baser self or ego. This sort of jihad should happen on a daily basis, from the moment one awakes to the moment one goes to sleep at night. Early in the morning one is woken up from slumber by the muezzin's call to prayer. One's heart says, 'Go back to sleep', but one's inner voice insists, 'Get up and say your prayers.' At once a jihad starts. What the heart says is the utterance of the army of the disbelievers; what the inner voice suggests is the suggestion of the army of Islam. The battlefield of this jihad is one's body. The jihad continues. If one goes back to sleep, the Muslim is defeated and disbelief is victorious. If one gets up and prays, the flag of Islam flies high and disbelief is vanquished.

Islam tells us that Muslims must first engage in jihad against the evils within our own selves, against our bad habits, against the habit of lying, against the habit of not praying regularly, against engaging in acts that God and the Prophet have forbidden. This jihad is called the jihad al-nafs or the struggle against the baser self. First vanquish your own baser self and become a true Muslim. After this, you can ascend to the second stage of jihad, that of sacrificing one's wealth, the jihad-e maal. Human beings love wealth and money. Give up that love, and spend your money on building water fountains for the public, assisting orphans and widows and the poor. This is the second type of jihad. If you sacrifice your wealth in this jihad-e maal for causes such as these, you have succeeded. If you do not, you have failed in your jihad.

The third jihad is the 'jihad of the sword' (jihad ba-saif). A true jihad of this sort can never be offensive. It can only be defensive, fought in defence when one's religion is being attacked. If the attack is not on Islam as such or if the attack does not pose any threat to Islam, fighting back in defence cannot be called a jihad. One must here make a crucial distinction between an action that might be a threat to Muslims and that which might threaten Islam. The two are very different. Islam is the name of a religion, and Muslims are those who follow that religion. Always maintain and recognize the difference and distinction between these two words 'Islam' and 'Muslims'. As an Indian, I can say that if all the Muslims of India are slaughtered it is true that Muslims would thereby be under threat, but even after this it would be wrong to claim that Islam was under threat.

Friends! Jihad of the sword can only be waged when Islam, as distinct from Muslims, is under threat. Islam is the religion preached by the Prophet Muhammad. If we Muslims all die, still the religion of Islam will remain. It can never die. Hence, one must use the phrase 'Islam is in danger' very carefully and not in a loose manner, as is often the case. And, it must not be forgotten, jihad by the sword can be engaged in only to defend Islam, if the need so arises, and not for any offensive purpose.

Let me illustrate my point with the help of examples from the life of the Prophet. The Prophet engaged in several jihads, the most famous of which are the jihads of Badr, Uhd, Khandaq and Khaibar. The norms governing jihad must be based on these four major jihads in which the Prophet participated, because the Prophet's actions exemplify Islamic teachings. Now, as emerges from his conduct in the course of these jihads, true Islamic jihad does not allow for killing innocent people or for humankind to be disgraced. Jihad is not the naked display of raw power. The Prophet explicitly commanded his followers before every jihad never to initiate the fighting, and to restrain from war as long as their opponents remained peaceful. He ordered them that in the course of jihad they must never hunt down any opponent fleeing from the battlefield, never kill the injured, never rob a woman of her modesty, and never harm children. He instructed them to provide protection to their opponents if they sued for peace, and not to kill them. A true Islamic jihad must abide by all these rules.

Look at the matter from another angle. Carefully examine the jihads of Badr, Uhd and Khandaq. These three jihads were fought in the vicinity of Medina. In these instances, the disbelieving Makkah had marched all the way towards Medinah in order to attack the Muslims. This clearly shows that these three jihads were fought by Muslims in defence, in the face of offensive actions of the disbelieving enemies. They were by no means offensive wars. The case of the battle of Khaybar was slightly different. In this case, the Muslims went all the way to Khaybar from Medinah because the disbelieving enemies had holed themselves up there and had started killing Muslims one by one. If the Muslims had not marched to Khaybar, the disbelievers would have continued killing Muslims. In other words, in order to quash this challenge to peace the Muslims were forced to head to Khaybar to take on their enemies. This cannot be considered an offensive war unleashed by the Muslims.

In order to properly appreciate the philosophy of jihad, one must consider various developments that occurred in the course of these battles. In the aftermath of the Battle of Badr, the Prophet agreed to release the Meccan prisoners of war if they were able to pay a certain sum for their freedom. Those who were unable to pay this sum but were educated were to be granted freedom if they could spend a year teaching Muslim children how to read and write. The job of a teacher carries much prestige. A teacher can even beat his students. A teacher exercises an enormous influence on his students' minds. It is a mark of the great importance placed on education in Islam that the Prophet allowed for even non-Muslim enemies to teach Muslim children and gave them the honored status of teachers. In fact, these non-Muslims were those who had physically engaged in war against Islam and the Prophet. Those prisoners of war who could neither afford the ransom nor teach children were to be given freedom after a year doing physical labour.


And, if war is engaged in for the sake of exacting personal revenge it does not qualify to be considered as jihad.


(Mirza Muhammad Athar is a leading Shia cleric from Lucknow, India. This is an edited version of a translation of two chapters of his Urdu book titled Islam Aur Dashatgardi ('Islam and Terrorism') (Hyderi Kutubkhana, Bombay, 2003), which consists of lectures delivered at a 10-day majlis session held in 2002 in the Masjid Iraniyan, Bombay).


(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand, who works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Social Policy at the National Law School,

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