The term “jihad” in the English media typically means armed fighting, and a Jihadist” is one engaged in armed fighting. Typically this is the only meaning allowed in the media. In the Quran, though, jihad is used generically to mean struggle in the cause of God. Sometimes it means struggle in warfare, as in 2:190 “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not transgress. God does not love those who transgress.”
But jihad has other meanings as well. Dr. Liyakat Takim writes that “We can talk of a spiritual jihad (to attain spiritual purity), the ethical –moral jihad (to attain moral excellence), a social jihad (to win the hearts and minds of others), and the rational jihad (exertion of mental faculties).” (see Dr. Liyakat Takim, “Jihad in Islam,” at www.stthomas.edu/mcdc under theological topics).
Thus to limit jihad to warfare is an illicit narrowing of a term whose primary meaning is to struggle in the way of God to overcome selfishness, and everything in us which resists total submission to God. I remember showing my Muslim colleague, Dr. Adil Ozdemir, a picture from our newspaper of two wrestlers locked in combat, and I said “That’s jihad.” “No,” he corrected me, “that is not jihad; jihad is struggling against the selfishness in oneself.”
I have often asked myself, “What is the Christian equivalent of Jihad?” Of course many will say “crusade.” But, as I have said before, most Christians do not defend the crusades. The pope has apologized for them. It’s extremely difficult to make a case for an aggressive warfare in Christian just war theory (as I noted in my last column). But what about the other meanings of Jihad? Is there a Christian equivalent?
The word to “strive” (Greek agon) in the sense of striving to fulfill God’s will is rare in the New Testament. One example is Jesus’ saying: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). But even though the word “strive” is rare, the idea of striving to submit to God’s will is frequent in the New Testament. Thus Jesus also says: “If any would want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, NRSV). Paul also writes: “One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on to the goal for the prize of the upward call of God.” (Philippians 3: 13-14). Paul also talks frequently about the war between the flesh—all that separates us from God—and the Spirit (of God). “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.” (Galatians 5:17).
However, what has happened in Christianity is that the emphasis on salvation by faith (in God and Jesus) has overshadowed the passages in the New Testament which talk about striving to follow God’s will. This is an example, I believe, where dialogue with Muslims can help Christians recover an authentic part of their own tradition.
Both Muslims and Christians, therefore, share the importance of the struggle to submit to God. If jihad is narrowed so that it means only warfare, it will usually be interpreted, especially by extremists, as meaning that Muslims and Christians are committed to fighting one another. But this is a perversion of its meaning. Both of our traditions stress the importance of striving in the way of God against selfishness, so as to submit more fully to God, and striving for a more just social order. In this sense, the true understanding of jihad should bring us closer together. For Muslims and Christians are those who struggle together in the same battle: against Godlessness, against selfishness, and against injustice.
Dr. Terence Nichols
Professor, Theology Department
Co-Director, Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.