Section Two: The Greater Jihad and the Lesser Jihad
There is a “hadith” (saying, in this case of Muhammad) that says that when Muhammad returned from one of his many battles, he told his soldiers that they were returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad. This has been interpreted to mean that the struggle against the self, one’s self, is a greater struggle than that with the sword against the infidel. This is also taken to mean that in Islam spiritual purification is higher and more important and more significant than war.
What I find interesting is that I had not heard of this hadith despite going to Islamic classes in America and despite being taught Islam while in Pakistan. Througout all this time, I learned, was taught, and thus knew that jihad was fighting against the infidels.
Islam glorifies the early history of Islam when hordes of Arab soldiers swept the world and conquered vast lands. The fall of peoples was discussed with awe for Islam, and great glee was taken in the slaughter of the infidels.
Infidels who, incidently, posed no threat whatsoever to the Islamic state or to the Islamic religion. The wars of Islamic conquest were unprovoked imperialist campaigns.
Such efforts were never disparaged. And, for that matter, the relevance of jihad kept being emphasized. (It should be no surprise that with all his jihad-rhetoric, the people of Pakistan took Saddam Hussein’s side in the first Gulf War: there were more Iraqi flags waved than Pakistani flags, despite the fact that Iraq invaded another Muslim country. The point was that Saddam was waging a valiant jihad against hostile infidels.)
Back to the hadith: some scholars have made the point that this hadith is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Some say it is a weak hadith (meaning that its chain of transmission is faulty or not reliable, thus making it possible that it is fake). Some say that this hadith has been practically ignored by “shari’ah” and Islam’s towering jurisprudent giants. Indeed, the case may be made that the opposite has become the norm, that normative Islam has always championed jihad by force and condemned those who would shirk these duties or diminish the importance of jihad by force.
It has been suggested, based on the circulation (and volume thereof) of this hadith that whereas it was always on the books, it gained currency, so to speak, when Muslims encountered (and were conquered by) Europeans, whose sensibilities made the Muslims ashamed of Islam’s violent past and violent mandates. So they trotted out this hadith as a way to say that real jihad was not violent, or that jihad by force was quite inferior to spiritual reformation and purification. In other words, Muslims were grasping at straws to find someone to say to exonerate Islam’s reputation in the eyes of the infidel Europeans who looked down on Islam.
Whereas Muslims who focus on spiritual purification may make recourse to this hadith , the reality is that there is no need to do so. In other words, one does not have to focus on spiritual purification to eschew jihad, nor does one have to eschew jihad to engage in spiritual purification.
Indeed, the most use of this hadith is with infidels or when keeping them in mind. I have never read this hadith in Urdu, and have not heard Muslims use it when speaking with other Muslims. So it seems strange to me that if this were an important part of Islam’s interpretation and implementation of what it calls jihad , that it would be quiet about this aspect when speaking with Muslims (who, of all people, seem to need this knowledge the most). Of course, this is because using this hadith has less to do with educating infidels about what jihad is and more to do with making them ignore and discount what Muslims have been writing and saying for almost one and a half thousand years about what jihad is, how it is done, and why.
The advantage with this smokescreen is that true jihad is preserved–infidels stop pestering Muslims to change the definition and methods of jihad–and the image of Islam is raised. This latter point also makes people more open to taking Islam seriously, especially as their own path. And if they submit and embrace Islam, they can embrace the truth about jihad with ease too, having been convinced that all aspects of Islam are holy and immutable.
So, in summary, there is no greater or lesser jihads. The bases for it were not invented, to be technical, but the hadith and its ideas have not held significance in Islam in practice and theory. A completely different narrative took its place, and has been manifesting itself since the birth of Islam. Just because honey-mouthed Muslims and gullible white academics have been towing this li(n)e does not make it true. Listen to what Muslims say to each other, especially in their own languages, and the significance (or lack thereof) of the hadith and of the idea of greater and lesser jihads becomes clear.
There is also an assumption, when one considers “greater jihad” and “lesser jihad”, that the latter was fall into disfavor while the former will prevail. This is not true. Muslims, many of them anyway, do not pay that much attention to what they do and what they ought to do. For example, in Islam the five daily prayers are mandatory: one must pray them or risk hellfire (or, even worse, becoming an apostate). But many Muslims will not pray these mandatory prayers, nor go to the recommended congregational prayer on Friday. Most such will go to the prayers for Eid, and these may be the only prayers he/she goes to. But the Eid prayers are optional, unlike the daily prayers or weekly congregational prayers, which are mandatory. In othe words, what may seem like what Muslims will do may not always be the case. And so simply because the hadith allegedly says there is a greater jihad and a lesser jihad doesn’t mean this is herded (if it is legitimate). Plus, notice how this oft-repeated hadith makes no mention whatsoever, nevertheless, against jihad by force.