Yes, that is the title; it is a play on the phrase “the struggle is real.” To be honest, I had a difficult time writing this piece because of the topic of discussion, which I chose to write about – you could call it a struggle. As a person who has just begun to write for publications, it was very intimidating to approach this topic and find my way around writing about it well. I am no scholar by any stretch; I plan to keep this at a high level, while bringing awareness to the use and misuse of the word jihad.
Jihad, it means to strive or struggle in the name of God, a struggle of the self from sin. It is a word as old as Islam. This word is used amongst a wide spectrum of people, Muslim, non-Muslim, good, and evil to fulfill a goal. After all the discussions and debates about jihad, one thing is conclusive – this word has been used for our benefit and for our detriment. For the sake of clarity, allow me to explain. Muslims such as you and I struggle in our daily lives to maintain the straight path, but at the same time, people have abused it to take innocent lives, majority of them being Muslim. And if Muslims are not dying from it, people are twisting the meaning of jihad to paint Muslims with a broad brush, turning us into sword wielding, infidel chasing monsters.
During the 4th of July weekend, Linda Sarsour, Palestinian American Activist and co-chair of the Womens’s March, drew criticism over the use of jihad in her speech at the annual convention hosted by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). To provide full context, here is the transcript of her speech referencing jihad:
“You can count on me every single day to use my voice to stand up, not only to people outside our community who are oppressing our communities, but those inside our community who aid and abet the oppressors outside our community.
There is a man who once asked our beloved prophet … has said to him, “What is the best form of jihad or struggle?”
And our beloved prophet … said to him, “A word of truth in front of a tyrant or leader, that is the best form of jihad.” I hope, that when we stand up to those who oppress our communities, that Allah accepts us as a form of jihad, that we are struggling against tyrants and rulers not only abroad in the Middle East or the other side of the world, but here in the United States of America, where you have fascists and white supremacists and Islamophobes reigning in the White House.”
Her speech resonated with all Muslims, as our very existence in this country is at stake. Her context was to encourage Muslims to speak truth to power and nonviolent resistance, but news outlets, Islamophobes, etc. removed the context and portrayed this moment at ISNA as a call to Muslims to wage a jihad against President Donald Trump, implying the context of violence and battle. After this “controversy”, I have heard and read about Muslims saying we should think of the when, where, how, and who if speaking about jihad. But honestly, why? Linda Sarsour was amongst the company of Muslims, or at least a vast majority, when she spoke about jihad. There is no safe time or location to use this word, and we should not be afraid to use it when speaking in the context of truth to power, nonviolent resistance, and explaining to others what jihad really means. How much longer can Muslims tolerate the misuse of this word as old as Islam?
The big problem is that nearly 16 years after the tragic events on September 11, 2001, there is still a lack of understanding of the meaning of jihad. Blame and finger pointing can be found all around, from the media to Islamophobes to individuals that are simply ignorant and consuming all this misinformation – which continues to drive their fear and hatred. Websites are dedicated to spread misinformation about jihad. But the problem goes deeper, and it only takes a few key strokes and mouse clicks to see how.
Shaykh Google is the ongoing joke we hear in conversation when Muslims use the internet to find answers about Islam and issues effecting Muslims today. But have we thought about how a non-Muslim begins to learn about Islam and specifically, jihad. A few choices come to mind: ask a Muslim, visit a Mosque, go to the library, search the internet. Out of the 4 choices, what is the most convenient method – the internet.
I made myself the test subject for this exercise. I opened my browser and began my Google search; I entered “jihad”. The results and links appeared, but also with a box on the top of the page which had the word and definition. The first definition said “a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam.” Right under the definition was the word used in a sentence, to help the reader apply the word. The sentence said “he declared a jihad against the infidels”. I refined my search by searching for the “meaning of jihad”, “definition of jihad”, and “what is jihad” – the results were all the same.
The next thing I tried was searching for the definition on Dictionary.com; as I did on Google, I entered “jihad” on the search field near the very top of the page. The first definition of jihad, as defined by the website is “a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims.” The third site I went to was the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website. Here, the first definition of jihad is “a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also : a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline”. In this case, both the greater and lesser jihad are listed in the first definition, but the first sentence mentions holy war. The other websites I referenced mention the greater jihad, but as the second, or secondary, definition. Finally, I tried the Oxford Dictionary website; it provides the same definition, with the same sentence, that Google provided. If I search the word “jihad” through Google Images, majority of the pictures are of Muslims holding swords and guns.
My mind went “SubhanAllah”, “OMG”, “Arey Yaar”. After knowing this, what is the problem? The problem is that the word jihad and its meaning have been hijacked, to the point where people can easily misunderstand jihad through very little effort, in this case, by just performing a Google search and navigating through a few online dictionaries. The lesser jihad is being highlighted, put first in line, and the greater jihad is placed second in line. The greater jihad, in my opinion, is much simpler to define and understand, but the lesser jihad cannot be explained so simply, there is context that needs to be placed for people to understand, which a simple Google or dictionary search cannot do. This is just one word, imagine what else is being misunderstood, yet easily accessible online. I am not saying that this is the only root cause of all misunderstandings of Islam, but it is definitely one of them, leading to misunderstandings at an early age which could snowball into something bigger, and that should ring our annoyingly loud mental fire alarms.
What we need to do as Muslims is learn about jihad, and how to explain jihad to others and feel comfortable talking about it – myself included. We need to be unapologetic, stand up, and not be cowed into ceding anything, not even our words. Jihad is not a bad, dirty word, it is not he J-word. This is what need to strive and struggle for, so we can practice our faith freely without the worry of any consequences.