Last month’s terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, resulting in the deaths of four Americans, brought the Muslim doctrine of “jihad” back into our living rooms as we watched in horror the murderous rage of people acting in the name of Allah.
But what, exactly, is jihad? The Arabic term means to endeavor, strive, struggle, or fight. It is sometimes translated “holy war.”
There are two ways in which Muslims embrace jihad.
First, the “greater jihad” is the internal struggle against evil inclinations. It might be compared to the Christian’s battle against the flesh. Surah 9:20 reads, “Those who believe and suffer exile and strive with might and main in Allah’s cause … have the highest rank in the sight of Allah.”
Second, the “lesser jihad” is warfare in the cause of Allah. Surah 9:29 says, “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor in the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the people of the Book until they pay the Jizyah [a non-believer’s tax] with willing submission.”
The purpose of jihad
Muslims contend that the main purpose of jihad is to protect and preserve the “haqq” (truth), according to scholar N.S.R.K. Ravi. Some believe the way to deal with those who pose obstacles to the spread of Islam is to declare jihad against them. This can take on peaceful forms: jihad with the tongue (speaking the truth), jihad with the heart (feelings and intentions), and jihad with the hand (good works).
However, the Qur’an also encourages jihad with the sword to defend Islam from attack, or to forcefully establish Islam in foreign lands where Islam is not granted free expression. In this sense, jihad may be waged against oppressors, disbelievers, idolaters, and even Christians and Jews.
“Those who participate in jihad are told they will receive rewards from Allah, ranging from the spoils of war if they survive, to entrance into paradise if they’re killed in battle,” says Ravi.
There is little doubt that the 9/11 terrorists, the Islamist Army major who gunned down U.S. soldiers at Ft. Hood in 2009, and the men who stormed our embassy in Benghazi a few weeks ago believed they were serving Allah, advancing Islam, and securing their place in paradise.
But a finer point needs to be made here. Whether a Muslim engages in “greater jihad” or “lesser jihad,” ultimately he is striving for Allah’s acceptance, for salvation in Islam is achieved through external acts, specifically the five pillars of Islam (with jihad a possible sixth pillar).
Missing the point
At its core, Islam misses the point because Muhammad’s followers teach a flawed view of man’s problem, which is sin. They insist that ignorance of Islam, not sin, is man’s problem. We do not need a Messiah to die for us, they argue. In fact, Allah would never permit a great prophet like Jesus to die a shameful death on a Roman cross; therefore, they teach, Allah swept Jesus alive off the cross and into heaven.
Embrace the five pillars, Islam teaches, and hope that Allah, who predestines good and evil, is kindly predisposed toward you.
The Bible, however, takes a much different view. Sin is our problem. We are by nature creatures who desire to live independently of God. Our sin creates a chasm between us and our Creator that no amount of “struggling’ could ever bridge.
That’s why Jesus came. He left the glory of heaven, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life and offered it up on the cross, where the Father “made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Through His finished work, Jesus conquered sin and death for us. He has taken up our struggle and paid our sin debt in full. The fight is over. By faith we are accepted by God, brought into His kingdom, and made His adopted children.
Unlike our Muslim friends, we do not strive to be accepted by a distant deity. Rather, we enjoy intimate fellowship with a personal God who loves us, makes peace with us, and assures us of a place in His kingdom.
Scholars will continue to debate the legitimacy and extent of jihad. Meanwhile, we can help our Muslim friends understand that the most violent act in history, the crucifixion of Jesus, accomplished what jihad will never attain – peace with God, eternal life, and an intimate, everlasting relationship with the sovereign Creator of the universe.
This column first appeared Oct. 10, 2012, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.