Understanding Our Inner Jihad

Creative Commons illustration from a medieval Persian manuscript depicts Muhammad (right) leading Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and others (order unspecified) in prayer.

One of my favorite courses in college was the one on Islam and learning more about the Muslim faith. For those who know me and/or have read prior blog posts, that might seem odd for someone who is not a believer to say, but I don’t think you need to be a believer to be interested in, and intellectually stimulated by, religious courses. After all, billions of people are religious followers; why wouldn’t you want to familiarize yourself with what they believe? Religious literacy matters. In fact, after taking the course on Islam and a few others, I was tempted to make that my minor (at Miami, they called it a “thematic sequence,” which for me, ended up being film studies).

It also helped that the course intersected with politics, because I’m a political junkie, and the book we read related to that intersection was Mohammed Ayoob’s 2008 book, The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. I thought it did a compelling job of situating the various manifestations of “political Islam” within the global context. I still have it on my bookshelf and would highly recommend it to anyone trying to learn more about Islam.

I’m not sure Americans have ever quite known that much about Islam and Muslims, despite their being two billion Muslims in the world, a comparable figure to the number of Christians, and worse yet, post-9/11, that ignorance was combined with hatred and misconceptions. One of those misconceptions and distortions is around the concept in the Islamic tradition of “jihad.” After 9/11, Americans came to understand and view jihad as Muslims declaring an act of holy war against “infidels,” such as Americans and other “non-believers.” But I believe that to be a distortion by extremists who perverted the faith; the same way others over the centuries have perverted the faith in the name of Christianity to wage war against nonbelievers of their time.

However, what jihad actually means to the vast, vast majority of Muslims and within the Islamic tradition is the inner jihad one wages against themselves, against their ego, and against their propensity for sin. What does that sound like? To me, it echoes Christianity. I’m not smart enough to say what any specific sect of Christianity purports this — because obviously, there are sects that seem more concerned with proselytizing, so an external mission, than the internal — but I’ve always thought a Christian belief is also interested in examining the inner self, checking one’s ego (because one cannot have an ego next to God and Jesus), and being cognizant of one’s sins.

But of course, Islam and Christianity intersect and overlap in many ways. I’m far from an expert, or even that knowledgeable, on Christianity and/or Islam, but I wonder how many Americans (who are Christians) know that the Quran talks about Jesus, accepts him as a prophet (just not the prophet), talks about Adam and Eve, and so on?

We, those who are religious and nonreligious alike, are far more similar than that intersection of politics would ever allow. Yes, nonreligious as well because aren’t we all trying to better our inner selves? At least, I would think we would strive to do so, even if we stumble, lapse, and/or are apathetic in that endeavor at times.

My “inner jihad” as of late has been some basic housekeeping — the mechanics, if you will. As in, trying to right my brain into a new normal after it was bogged down with depression; trying to right my body after I fed it junk for so long (while depressed); and trying to right my physical well-being with more exercise. But spiritually, if you want to use that word? At a deeper level? I just try to be a good person. I try to do good, not merely speak of doing good. And I try to do good for its own sake, not for any external validation, albeit you could argue there is still “selfishness” involved (that word often has too negative a connotation) because it enriches and satisfies the striving to better one’s self.

I’m not sure I could give a treatise on what it means to be a good person or how to be a good person because in a lot of ways, it often is more of a feeling than a tangible thing. Nonetheless, I often think of it as more than mere good deeds, although those are part of it, but also how one comports themselves even, and perhaps especially, when nobody else is watching or observing. It’s a small thing, but an example that comes to mind is that when I’m driving and another driver does something untoward, my instinct might be to get annoyed; however, I try to catch myself and in so doing, I often laugh at myself for getting annoyed. Why spend that moment acting like that? Reversing even those small moments and attitudes, even though I am in the car alone by myself, I think can lead to a more fulfilling inner self in the aggregate.

As always, though, similar to what I think the religious might say, it’s a work-in-progress. Every second of every day. And it never quite ends until we depart.

What’s your “inner jihad” look like? What does that mean to you?

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