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Tuesday, July 30, 2002
Here Comes the Sunni

Sunni Muslim Muslimpundit celebrated his return to blogging with a long article disputing the claim that Muslims view jihad as a struggle for self-improvement. Shia blogger Aziz Poonawalla posted a counter argument asserting that Adil's post was overly centered on the Sunni tradition, disregarding the very distinct Shia school.

Adil's argument, however, was in response to authors who spoke of Islam as a general movement. Here are again the key portions of the quotes he was criticizing:

In Western thought, heavily influenced by the medieval Christian Crusaders – with their own ideas about “holy war” – jihad has always been portrayed as an Islamic war against believers. Westerners point to the conquest of Spain in the eighth century by the Moors and the vast Ottoman Empire of the thirteenth through twentieth centuries, and focus on the bloodshed...Militancy is not the essence of jihad...The greater jihad as explained by The Prophet Muhammad is first inward-seeking: it involves the effort of each Muslim to become a better human being, to struggle to improve him- or herself. In doing so the follower of jihad can also benefit his or her community.
- Ahmed Rashid

So Muslims were not inspired by a passionate religious zeal to impose their faith at sword point. Nor was “jihad” a pillar of their religion. The word “jihad” does not even primarily mean “holy war,” as Westerners tend to define it. It means “struggle, effort.” ...There is a very important and much quoted maxim attributed to Muhammad, which has him say to his companions while returning home after a battle, “We are returning from the lesser Jihad [the battle] to the greater Jihad,” the far more significant, crucial, and demanding struggle to reform one’s own society and to extirpate evil, greed, and malice from one’s own heart.
-Karen Armstrong

Almost any argument that tries to speak for Muslims this broadly will be doubtful. Other than belief in the unity of God and reverence for Mohammed, it would be hard to find much on which all Muslims agree. But to the degree that statements like this can be addressed at all, they should be addressed by looking at the beliefs of the majority of Muslims. And with all due respect to the Shia, the majority of Muslims are Sunni who use al Bukhari, Muslim, and the other major Sunni hadith collections, and very rarely accept hadith not found in them. For instance, see this page, obviously created by a Sunni, which mentions and rejects the very hadith Armstrong cites.

I don't think Adil ever meant to, or does, deny that there are Muslims who have this understanding of jihad, particularly among the Shia and Sufi. He was asserting that the idea isn't widely accepted among majority Sunni Muslims, nor can it be asserted with any reliablility to have originated from Mohammed. Writers who dismiss the association of violence with jihad as a Western fantasy are ignoring a great deal of reality. I mught also note that Armstrong's definition isn't incompatible with a violently militant understanding of Islam. Here is one theologian, whose name you may recognize, who clearly does believe in the greater jihad.